Viewpoint: How the Fall of Oscar Pistorius Is a Tragic Opportunity for South African Unity

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SIPHIWE SIBEKO / REUTERS

Oscar Pistorius awaits the start of court proceedings in the Pretoria Magistrates Court on Feb. 19, 2013

More than any other nation, South Africa articulates its dreams through sport. As the country teetered on the edge of civil war with the end of apartheid in 1994, Nelson Mandela adopted the Afrikaners’ game, rugby, and South Africa’s home triumph in the 1995 World Cup held the nation together. In 2010, Mandela’s successors in the ruling African National Congress (ANC) government chose a faultless soccer World Cup to deliver the message that Africa was no longer the hopeless continent but a waking giant of capability and opportunity. Until this month, the latest incarnation of South African hope was Oscar Pistorius, a man with no legs who triumphed in the sport he should rightly never even have taken up: running.

(PHOTOS: Oscar Pistorius on and off the Track)

Perhaps it is because the crushing of hope is the cruelest of experiences that South Africa is so dazed by Pistorius’ arrest for the murder of his girlfriend, Reeva Steenkamp, a model, in the early hours of Valentine’s Day. South Africans, to judge by their newspapers, can think of little else. The week that followed 26-year-old Pistorius’ arrest has been a big one. President Jacob Zuma delivered his annual state of the nation address to Parliament. Mamphela Ramphele, the former partner of antiapartheid hero Steve Biko, founded a new political party. Thirteen people were injured when security guards fired plastic bullets at rioters at a platinum mine in Rustenburg, the latest in the industrial violence that has throttled South Africa’s economy since the police shot dead 34 striking miners at nearby Marikana last August. None of these events warranted more than the briefest mentions next to Pistorius’ arrest.

But there is also an unusual quality to the introspection that Pistorius’ fall has prompted. Nearly two decades after apartheid, many South Africans still interpret any big event through a racial prism. Some have attempted to do the same with Pistorius’ arrest. Racist whites commenting on news websites blame the (black) ANC for Pistorius’ arrest since, the racists say, it was their incompetent (that is, black) handling of South Africa’s violent (black) crime that would make even a sporting hero like Pistorius so fearful that he would keep a pistol and a machine gun in his bedroom and expect to have to defend himself against (black) intruders.

A few unwise comments by a black government minister or prosecutor or policeman and Pistorius’ trial may yet divide South Africa as O.J. Simpson’s split America. But for the moment, it’s hard to find racial disadvantage in the story of a glamorous white hero accused of shooting his glamorous white girlfriend. Not least because in a land obsessed by previous or current disadvantage, Pistorius was the ultimate meritocrat: a man who succeeded whatever the accidents of his birth.

(MORE: Details Emerge of Girlfriend Murder Case Against ‘Blade Runner’ Oscar Pistorius)

Instead of blaming other South Africans, white South Africans are being forced to look at themselves. Pistorius’ innocence or guilt will be decided in court and likely not for years. But Steenkamp’s death has already invigorated a South African campaign against the country’s epidemic violence against women, described by surveys like one by the Medical Research Council in 2009 that found 27.6% of all South African men admitted to being rapists. Four days before she died, Steenkamp wrote a Twitter message saying: “I woke up in a happy safe home this morning. Not everyone did. Speak out against the rape of individual.” Accident or murder, her death has forever erased the tacit assumption in her message: that gun violence and violence against women is largely a black problem.

It is not the first time a fallen sporting hero has forced white South Africa to take a close look at itself. In April 2000, the supposition that South African criminals were mostly black was shaken when the 30-year-old national cricket captain Hansie Cronje — one of the most successful captains of all time — admitted taking bribes from an Indian betting syndicate to fix matches.

But if white South Africa must once again stare into its soul, it may find a kind of unity in that endeavor. Any day now Nigeria will announce it has overtaken South Africa as Africa’s largest economy. That will help cement opinion that South Africa, previously Africa’s economic powerhouse, is now a drag on a booming continent. Among black South Africans, in particular, it will also harden disappointment with Mandela’s successors in the ANC, many of whom were also once heroes but are now rotten with corruption and violent, criminal factionalism. It’s a similar story too in South Africa’s labor movement, formerly a driver of revolutionary change but now divided by a bloody power struggle between rival unions, which provided the original spark for violence at both Marikana and Rustenburg.

Such intraracial fracturing may ultimately be good for South Africa. Blaming yourself is generally more constructive than blaming the other. And as South Africa approaches its third decade of freedom, it might allow the Pistorius trial to persuade it to see past its tendency to see national sport as a metaphor for national life. Because, sure, sport can inspire. But maybe, at least until the country is back on track, enough with the games.

MORE: Reeva Steenkamp — What to Know About Oscar Pistorius’ Girlfriend

8 comments
AlexisLi
AlexisLi

As a white South African I am really not happy about the article that you wrote. Did you ever think that it is peole like you that keep on digging and brining up the past that keeps the idea of racisim alive in our beutifull country?

Yes we have some of the highest stats of crime in the world, Johannesburg recently being named the 5th most dangerous country in the world. Yes when I drive at night I drive over red lights and stop's in the road when I know that there is no oncoming traffic because I am affraid of being hijacked or attacked. But I am doing that not because am affraid of black people but because I am affraid of BAD people.

I am the only white person in our office at work and I have never enjoyed my job so much as I do now. I have black friends and my godson is indian. Race for most of us has long since sieced to be a problem.

Now go and look at the people who scream rasisim the loudest please. Our youth (most born and schooled after 1994) and they are the ones striking and protesting because there is no jobs, decent housing is a wish for most of them and healt care is in shambles. The same problem that the rest of the world has is it not? People who turn to crime for easy money and because they are to lazy to find word. The world in general ows them jobs where they can walk into an executive office with a seven figure salary without even the most basic high school deploma behind them.

Does this not sound like the rest of the world for you?

The only difference with South Africa is that here people are conditioned to (sometimes violantly) stike and protest for what they want. Because they see that people in power and politicians accross all gender and race get what they want and get away with absolutly everythinig.

So please, stop blaming everything on appartheid and be honest with yourself. We have problems because of social and economical issues.

And Oscar Pretorius is looking for a good defence point. If he was a real man he would have thought to protect the woman he claims to have loved and thought to be the one. Not forget about her, his common sence and brains, and go shooting a noise in the bathroom.

VanellaJackson-Crawford
VanellaJackson-Crawford

On this side of the world, this case is seen through racial eyes.  How can it not?  Isn't that the reason for the fear?  That the black boogey man will come and gulp up the whites?  The same is true in America and wherever humanity has been abused.    When any individual or group has perpetrated a crime againist another, some forms of guilt prevail and gets grounded into the fabric and background of the psyche of the individual and society.  Such guilt and fear has become the nagging tug on the real peace of us all.  To deny this is what fuels violence...intended or not.   Fear is a mean thing and it is plaguing us all.  No society is free of it.  Domination and greed breeds it.  South Africa, North Africa, America, and around the world.....we will not sleep at night until we honestly face the boogey man of fear.  Oscar could not sleep because of it either.  If this opportunity is missed....what tragedy must we have that will shake us from our attachment to fear and denial?   

boomer_babe
boomer_babe

I wonder how many families wonder why their mother, sister, wife or daughter didn't even warrant a mention in the press, while the entire world can't get enough of a single celebrity death. I'm not saying that Reeva's death shouldn't prosecuted with less energy, but that perhaps the hundreds of other daily deaths amongst South African womenhood should be handled with the same attention.

FrancoisBotha
FrancoisBotha

This article is absolute nonsense, i cant possibly see that this could in any way be interpreted as a race issue. Crime in this country is high STOP. Irrespective of race or the race of the perpetrators. Most households take security measures that would be considered extreme or even outrages in other parts of the world (again I state this is irrespective of race). Another note, the type of estates like the one Pistoruis lived in are as much home to BEE tycoons as it is to others.

AlexPerry
AlexPerry

@FrancoisBotha Thanks Francois. I think that's the really interesting point. When so many things are seen through a racial prism in South Africa, this case isn't -- and that's unusual, and maybe offers something positive

MagdalenaKus
MagdalenaKus

Observing Facebook and office conversations among my friends, opinions on Oscar's guilt or innocence have not been predictably split along racial lines. A very mixed reaction in fact. Actually probably just as well- because I do not think we have enough facts do be definite yet... Greetings from Cape Town!

AlexPerry
AlexPerry

@MagdalenaKus It is interesting, isn't it? Like I say, some people, mainly whites, seemed to have tried to twist this into a race issue. But, as yet, most people aren't buying it -- and maybe that's some small crumb of good news here.