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

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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