/ 8 July 2016

Let’s redirect our Oscar Pistorius outrage to the broken and unbalanced justice system

As Oscar Pistorius left the witness box this week
As Oscar Pistorius left the witness box this week


South Africans are right to be angry about the six-year sentence imposed on convicted murderer Oscar Pistorius — but not for the reasons you may think.

Pistorius’s murder trial was extraordinary and bizarre. Its facts and personalities, its mix of disability and celebrity, are unlikely ever to be repeated.

It’s also unusual because the man who shot and killed Reeva Steenkamp actually went on trial and was convicted. There are no statistics for conviction rates in South Africa, but police presentations to Parliament have estimated that only 20% of murder cases result in a conviction.

Crime statisticians say it’s closer to 9%.

That’s worth getting angry about.

Pistorius’s murder trial involved the best legal and forensic minds in the country. Despite that, it soon emerged that the police’s initial handling of the crime scene was shambolic. Objects were moved around and one of Pistorius’s watches was stolen. As a result, the promise of forensic certainty, of something that could be shown to be indisputably true, was lost.

That damages the cause of the innocent, whoever it may be.

Forensic mishandling is too often a hallmark of our criminal cases. One such heartrending example was the case of Mpho Sibanze, who was 19 years old when she and her boyfriend Bongani Malinga were stabbed to death. Before she died she told her family who their killer was — but the police’s failure to test blood found on the man’s clothes saw him acquitted.

Such instances are far from isolated. That’s worth getting angry about.

Pistorius had the money and the resources to expose the gaps in the state’s case against him. The state was unable to prove that he had direct intent to murder Steenkamp.

People are understandably drawing comparisons with heavy sentences given in cases where the accused have been found guilty of far less serious offences such as petty theft, but are not able to afford good lawyers.

The reality is that crime in South Africa inevitably reflects the webs of privilege that cushion the wealthy and set the poor up for harsh punishment. Often illiterate, inarticulate and alienated from the legally dense language of the courtroom, and frequently destroyed by addiction, the poor are never really given the opportunity to state their case in the way that Pistorius has been able to.

The danger is that we conflate everything that is systemically wrong with our justice system with a 29-year-old man who has taken the life of his girlfriend and destroyed his own.

The reality is this: if Pistorius goes to jail for the rest of his life, it won’t fix the broken, failing and unbalanced justice system. We all know this, but perhaps it is easier to hate the privileged young man in the suit than to face up to the fact that there are thousands of broken young people in the criminal justice system who really need our outrage.