To the outside world South Africans appear to be happy, cheerful people, known for their warm hospitality. That crime, murders and rape rate among the highest in the world doesn’t appear to deter everyday life in towns and cities, townships or luxury housing estates.
Life and death goes on and South Africans are avid viewers of reality TV: Crime and Investigation, and other programmes where they can step into another world as armchair investigators, judge and juror.
Then the unthinkable happened. South Africa woke up on Valentine’s Day 2013 to unstoppable tweets, SMSs and texting that announced that the Olympic and Paralympic gold medallist and sports hero, Oscar Pistorius, had shot and killed his girlfriend in a shooting frenzy at his luxury home in Pretoria.
Suddenly, people found themselves engrossed in their own home-grown reality show: The Oscar Pistorius Trial, the very public trial of Pistorius, the double amputee dubbed the Blade Runner because of his springy running leg prostheses.
Never before in South African legal history had a trial been televised. Not only did the world’s media give a blow by blow account of all the minutiae of the trial, it also spawned its own TV channel, social media was abuzz, legal and forensic experts talked at length on news channels, while some journalists saw this as an opportunity to turn their new-found knowledge into books. Everyone had an opinion and this was especially so on social media as the trial played out.
People were and are still either pro Oscar, or pro Reeva.
Reeva supporters tweeted messages such as “Dear Reeva South Africa has failed you like it has failed many women and children” (SuvN) while Bernadine tweeted “Still hard to believe such a beautiful soul has gone.” Oscar fans the world over continue to support him, like the girl from Russia with a photo saying “I love Oscar”, messages such as Jane’s from the UK, “Dear Oscar, you, your family as well as the Steenkamp family are in my thoughts and prayers… This was nothing more than a tragic accident”, or from Sharon in the US, “I just want to say that my heart is broken for Oscar…”
The trial not only opened the door to an outpouring of grief, but also opened wounds festering under the surface of many South Africans who had suffered ill-treatment and brutality from the police and political system, especially those detained during the apartheid era. This became obvious on social media as sentiments boiled over, particularly from women, many victims themselves of violence and sexual abuse, who wished to see a harsh jail term meted out.
Racial tensions were also exposed, as many felt that the white man’s privilege still reigns in this post-apartheid society. That view, however, has changed somewhat since the start of the trial of alleged wife murderer, British-born, Indian business man Shrien Dewani. Unlike Pistorius, the judge ruled against live television coverage, but social media and media coverage has changed perceptions that it is privilege and wealth, rather than skin colour, that is the deciding factor in the treatment of the accused and the outcome of a court case.
Twenty years into democracy and wounds are still raw. The Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) was initiated to facilitate a truthful reconciliation process that would lead to restoration and recovery from the brutal apartheid abuse and loss of dignity.
According to Frank Meintjies, a Visiting Research Fellow at Wits School of Public and Development Management in a report for The South African Civil Society Information Service: “Many of the deep-seated social and developmental problems facing South Africa today link back to the transition processes of the early 1990s.”
He says the issue is not about having had the TRC or the Convention for a Democratic South Africa (CODESA), but at the time it was a political necessity to see the processes as “end points” instead of the beginning of far-reaching changes. While much has been done to redress inequality and poverty, South Africans still suffer from collateral damage, particularly the psychological damage of a brutal past, and are not yet reconciled to being part of the peaceful Rainbow Nation that Nelson Mandela envisaged. And with much of the past still simmering, it is impossible to ignore it and the possible fallout.
Televising the trial brought the criminal justice system into focus and many people remarked upon the inequality between the (so-called) rich and privileged and the majority of poor people.
“The Pistorius case was not legally complex, but it was the first televised trial in South Africa’s history. It brought the criminal justice system into sharp focus. It afforded, indeed necessitated, a proper explanation of the system, its inner workings, its problems and its achievements”, said high court judge and presenter of Judge for Yourself, Judge Dennis Davis in a recent programme on the trial.
This feeling of being let down by the justice system was what angered most people I spoke to. Helen Matroos summed it up: “We struggled for justice, the pinnacle for which everything else revolves. How far have we slithered away from attaining the goal of a just South Africa?”
Mercia Draghoender, a former activist and currently a municipal official, says she is “very angry” at the sentence. She is also disappointed to see how people are treated differently according to their status. “It is obvious that there are two types of justice systems in South Africa, one for the privileged and one for the poor. It brought back memories of police brutality during apartheid and what saddens me is that it hasn’t changed much since then, people living on the ‘other side’ of town are still treated like dirt.”
Draghoender explains that the trial was liberating for her, as it gave her a chance to express herself and it opened doors to dialogue about violence against women. “We live a country where men still think they are the bosses. It doesn’t matter if it is at home, work, in churches or on the street, men still don’t respect women and they are becoming more violent by the day.”
It was the brutality of the multiple shooting, accidental or not, of Reeva that appalled people.
Valesca Erlank, a social activist and youth leader feels that that crimes against women, particularly rape and murder, are not taken seriously enough. “These crimes happen daily in our communities. We don’t just read about it, we see it and we feel it. Our courts as well as the South African police are failing us women and more recently justice has started to fail our children, as in the Taegrin Morris case.”
Taegrin, aged five, was a victim of a botched car-jacking and the only suspect was released by police apparently for lack of evidence, which caused an outcry from the local community.
“As a rape survivor I know the impact rape has and I know why women don’t speak out about it and there are two reasons; society labels us and the courts don’t believe us. South Africa is still one of the most dangerous countries in the world and we continue to withdraw from that fact, particularly as it is women and children who mostly suffer from these crimes. It’s a system we must continue to fight daily.”
Erlank believes the reason many people support Oscar is that they draw inspiration from his past and his disability. “Not everyone is able to overcome a rocky past. We must also try and understand that Oscar may have been the only inspiration ever known to those who look up to him, but some lost respect for him because he killed an innocent woman. Reeva was still a breathing soul with a right to live.”
Will women speak out? “Both yes and no. No, because there are so many women out there who get battered and raped daily and they still cannot speak out because of fear. Fear is terrible. It silences you. Women are trapped because of inequality, especially economic inequality. Yes, this trial has helped some overcoming that fear. Harsher prison sentences? We demanded it yesterday already. We demand it today. We will continue to demand it. The longer we wait, the more we crucify generations to come. No man, woman or child deserves these crimes against them.”
A question many asked was, why didn’t we hear Reeva’s side of the story?
I asked freelance journalist Nick van der Leek, who attended the trial and has subsequently written several books relating to it, for his opinion.
“Personally I don’t understand the silence in terms of Reeva. Possibly it had something to do with the perpetrator ‘buying’ the victim’s parents’ silence. Like the majority of South Africans and people watching the trial from around the world, I was shocked at the verdict. I was shocked that a judge could dismiss around half a dozen key witness testimonies in favour of the accused.
“Essentially, Judge Masipa preferred Oscar’s version over five or six witnesses who contradicted him. In summary, she accepted that a woman didn’t scream, but that it was Oscar screaming after all. The irony in that is you have a female judge silencing the ‘voice’ (the screams) of the victim.”
Having been “in the heart” of emotions felt in the courtroom, I asked Nick if he feels that South Africans are still suffering post-traumatic symptoms of apartheid brutality.
“I think there is still a strong undercurrent of injustice flowing out of the apartheid era. Apartheid led to victims on both sides of the racial divide, and guilt and anger on both sides remain. While Mandela brought about some reconciliation, when injustice stews in the background the feelings of reconciliation begin to dissipate and fear, frustration and anger begin to replaces it.”
It is no wonder then that violence continues to traumatise South Africans every day.
Vivi Stavrou, a former researcher at the Centre for the Study of Violence and Reconciliation, comments that most people researched, whether exposed directly or indirectly to violent situations, suffer from symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder. “Research also indicates that just living in a society where the media is filled with images of violence and messages of doom and destruction can result in people experiencing post-traumatic stress symptoms.”
Irishman Padraig O’Malley notes from his research on the country’s transition from apartheid to democracy on the Nelson Mandela Foundation’s Heart of Hope website: “The psychological effects are multiple and are amplified by other stresses of living in a deprived society. Hence lingering physical, psychological, economic and social effects are felt in all corners of South African society. The implications of this extend beyond the individual - to the family, the community and the nation.”
Speaking to members of the MK Military Veterans Association, I was told that a major problem many experienced (and in some cases are still experiencing) was integrating into post-apartheid society. Many still suffer from depression, which affects all aspects of their lives from personal relationships to employment.
Is it any wonder then that the Pistorius trial triggered an outpouring of emotions?
Clinical psychologist Callie Hattingh explains that people can recover from past trauma. He says the dilemma, though, is that some people have made rational sense and meaning from their trauma, but still suffer emotional and physiological reactions (the survival brain mechanism that reacts with the basic fight, flight or freeze response) that can trigger trauma reactions even from a certain colour or sound, to the tone of someone’s voice or facial expression and, in Oscar’s case, it could also be the theme of the trial that triggered reactions.
“Nelson Mandela was a living example of post-traumatic growth, where trauma gives meaning and purpose.”