Oscar Pistorius case: South African Justice System is also on trial

With the world watching, justice must be seen to be done in the killings of Reeva Steenkamp and Anene Booysen

by Ranjeni Munusamy for Daily Maverick/The GuardianOscar Pistorius in court

Since news broke of the shooting of Reeva Steenkamp on the morning of Valentine’s Day, Oscar Pistorius has been at the top of the global news agenda. As the intense bail hearing progressed last week, the South African criminal justice system has also been on trial.

It is truly unprecedented that international news channels interrupt normal programming for close to two hours to broadcast live audio from a Pretoria magistrate. Because Desmond Nair would not allow television cameras in his courtroom, they were forced to show static file images or live footage from outside the court while Nair’s ruling on Pistorius’s bail application was broadcast.

During the hearing, the world listened while the cross-examination of the former investigating officer, Hilton Botha, revealed the propensity of police to bungle cases, either through negligence or incompetence. But it was the way Botha was recharged for attempted murder which exposed that the discord between the police and prosecutors, which almost led to violent confrontations between the two arms of state during the corruption trial of former police chief Jackie Selebi, has not gone away.

Meanwhile ministers of justice and crime prevention briefed the media on Sunday on the work of their departments, hoping to counter negative perceptions of widespread crime and corruption affecting the country’s image.

The ministers gave brief information on interventions to clamp down on violent protests, reduce case backlogs, focus on violence against women and children, fight corruption and fill vacancies in senior posts of the criminal justice system. They announced that the government will publish the names of government officials convicted of corruption. “In the next few days, we will be publishing all the names of people who have been convicted in cases of corruption and all those whose assets have either been frozen or have been forfeited to the state,” Radebe said.

But what better way to demonstrate that justice is being done than through the high-profile cases that have caught the world’s attention? The brutal rape and murder of Bredasdorp teenager Anene Booysenturned the spotlight on South Africa‘s alarming rape statistics and shocking levels of violence against women and children. The Booysen case will obviously be watched closely in and outside the country to monitor the course of justice against the alleged perpetrators, whether the punishment will be commensurate to the levels of violence executed on the victim and how this compares to international practice. The international media has already compared the attack on Booysen andSouth Africa‘s reaction to it to a similar gang rape of an Indian woman in December; the punishment meted out is bound to provoke similar comparisons.

Despite all this, the Booysen case is going through the normal grind of the justice system. While Zuma acknowledged her attack in his State of the Nation Address and used it to condemn the high rates of sexual violence against women, there has not been any demonstrable action by the government to show that the Booysen rape and murder is a priority.

The Pistorius trial will continue to focus attention on South Africa’s criminal justice system. The commentary on the case so far has been less than flattering, with international journalists covering and following the case telling the world how Botha “bungled” the investigation by overlooking evidence and compromising the crime scene. They also latched onto aspects of Nair’s ruling condemning Botha’s negligence.

CNN’s Piers Morgan tweeted to his over 3.2 million followers during Nair’s ruling: “The idiot police chief Botha’s incompetence has probably won #Pistorius bail single-handedly, judging by what magistrate is now saying.” Even though Morgan misunderstood Botha’s job and impact on the case – Nair was at pains to stress that Botha did not represent the state’s entire case against Pistorius – the resultant damage from the bad PR around the matter will be difficult to undo.

In his affidavit, Pistorius has used South Africa’s high crime rate to justify his paranoia, which led to him opening fire four times on whoever was locked in his toilet. “I am acutely aware of violent crime being committed by intruders entering homes with a view to commit crime, including violent crime. I have received death threats before. I have also been a victim of violence and burglaries before. For that reason I kept my firearm, a 9mm Parabellum, underneath my bed when I went to bed at night,” Pistorius states in his affidavit.

Friends and family speaking to the media in his defence have also talked up South Africa’s crime levels to show that his alleged fear was not out of the ordinary.

In an article on the Pistorius case in the Baltimore Sun, Matthew Durington, a cultural anthropologist who conducted ethnographic research in gated communities in South Africa, wrote:

Gated communities, often called ‘golf estates’, are enclosed spaces protected by a number of security measures such as electrified fences, razor wire, patrols and enhanced biometric and technological measures that continue to be developed by a ‘fear industry’ that flourishes in South Africa. This fear industry emboldens a fear culture that is obsessed with crime and its avoidance. While we may see this as an irrational fear, as the majority of crime occurs in concentrated spaces among the black population (not unlike in the United States), one has to respect the nature of crime in South Africa. Despite a murder rate that has begun to decline in recent years, South Africa still has crime levels that are astronomical, with a homicide rate approximately four times that of most industrialised nations.

The assertion that Mr Pistorius believed there was an intruder in his home may seem unlikely in a secured home in the middle of a gated community, but it is a perception that many in South Africa will relate to. A segment of the South African psyche will understand the fear and the reaction allegedly spurred by it, despite any evidence to the contrary.”

From this it is clear that more than Pistorius’s actions in the early hours of the morning of 14 February is under scrutiny. South Africa’s crime levels and reactions to them are also the subject of focus and will continue to be for the duration of the trial.

Yet government ministers charged with overseeing the work of the criminal justice system and trying to inspire confidence in it, were reluctant to engage on the Pistorius case. Although they initially entertained some questions on the matter, Radebe eventually shut down questioning on it. Asked to comment on the friction between the prosecutors and police around Botha, Radebe said he was “not aware” of any conflict between the two bodies on the Pistorius case.

“I have not discerned any conflict between the NPA (national prosecuting authority) and the police; in fact, they always work as a team,” Radebe said.

He also said the Pistorius case should be “separated from general crime in the country”. Referring to recent shooting incidents at schools in the United States as “mad people shooting children”, Radebe said such occurrences were different to general crime. “The statistics tell us violent crime is going down. [The Pistorius case] is not an indication of widespread violent crime in the country… Crime has dropped and more people feel safe.”

But facing more questions on the matter, Radebe said: “This press conference was called to look at issues emanating from the State of the Nation Address… So I’m issuing orders that the questions [regarding the case of] Oscar Pistorius will not be answered in this press conference.” He said the media could call the prosecutors and police directly if they wanted information about the case.

From the beginning, the government has shied away from engaging about the Pistorius matter despite it, including the president, helping to build the athlete as a superstar and flag bearer for the country. Notwithstanding the massive international interest in the case and South Africa’s legal system, the government has not been able to communicate sufficiently to fight negative perceptions about crime and the justice system to counter the onslaught.

While a successful prosecution will be the best PR for the criminal justice system, it might be several months, if not years, before the case reaches finality. In the meantime, the issues raised cannot be ignored in the hope that interest will dwindle. It won’t.

Last Friday, the lone voice of magistrate Desmond Nair rang across the world to show the justice system in action and the seriousness with which the case is being handled. South Africa’s political leaders need to take off their blinkers and see the glare of the international focus on the country for what it is. The Pistorius case will be a test for South Africa in many ways and will continue to shape global opinion about the country for its duration. Pistorius has a high-powered team handling his defence as well as reputation management; South Africa, unfortunately, does not.

Author: Janet Carr

Fashion, beauty and animal loving language consultant from South Africa living in Stockholm, Sweden.

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