TOO LATE TO RELY ON MIRACLES
Oscar Pistorius: Big trouble in South Africa, the land that believes in miracles
The unfolding drama of the Oscar Pistorius case has created a wave of soul-searching in South Africa, writes Tim Butcher
The spectacular fall of Oscar Pistorius, national hero turned tearful murder suspect, has raised questions about the state of the nation Photo: Getty Images
By Tim Butcher
7:30PM GMT 22 Feb 2013
It has been a heartbreaking week in South Africa for those who believe in miracles. Ever since Nelson Mandela strode so forgivingly to the close of his long walk to freedom in the early 1990s, modern South Africa has flirted almost recklessly with the ”M’’ word.
The way white rule ended peacefully without the sort of civil war that blighted so many other parts of Africa was recognised, rightly in my view, as little short of a miracle. But from then on the term has been devalued through overuse.
The transformation of the African National Congress from a loose, untried muddle of occasional Lefties, hotheads and radicals into a sober, market-orientated party of government, capable of stewarding the continent’s most powerful economy, was heralded among the white-dominated business community as miraculous.
The victory of the supposedly underdog South African side in the 1995 Rugby World Cup, cheered on by Mandela famously dressed in the same Springbok shirt so symbolically associated with his auld enemy, saw headline writers and filmmakers reaching again for the ”M’’ word.
So ever since, any stand-out South African success whether in sport, entertainment or commerce, has been given the same glowing treatment. To have done well from humble South African beginnings must be a miracle, the narrative goes.
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No surprise then at the title of a major documentary film on the country’s recent history given its premiere a few days ago: Miracle Rising. But fewer believe in miracles than 10 days ago. The spectacular fall of Oscar Pistorius, national hero turned tearful murder suspect, has not just aroused intense international media interest. In South Africa it has brought about a wave of soul-searching: about trust in the police, the cult of celebrity, violent crime and gun control, and faith in the political dominance of Mandela’s beloved ANC.
The announcement of bail for Pistorius also sparked debate on the unlevel playing field in the judicial system where prisons are full of remand prisoners on lesser charges than murder but who cannot afford a high-end defence team such as that retained by Pistorius, whose extraordinary success in securing bail for their client kicked every other story off the pitch.
Indeed, you’d never know from the meagre coverage, but President Jacob Zuma gave the annual State of the Nation address this week. Once a major event, parsed, analysed, processed ad nauseam not just by political observers but also by voters across the country, this one was almost ignored, overshadowed by public obsession with Pistorius.
With a flatlining economy and dipping confidence in the ANC government he leads, President Zuma’s lukewarm performance was not so much criticised as passed over. Such indifference feels very damaging. A nation once so proudly, loudly, engaged with the ANC feels like it might just be in the process of moving on.
Not uncoincidentally, a former stalwart anti-apartheid campaigner, Dr Mamphela Ramphele, broke cover this week to announce the creation of a new political movement, Agang, a name I suggest you take note of for the promise it has to become a significant political player. So widespread had been the support for the ANC, so long the honeymoon it enjoyed for leading the struggle against apartheid, that meaningful opposition in South Africa has struggled since the first fully democratic elections back in 1994.
Today’s main opposition party, known as the Democratic Alliance after several name changes over the years, did achieve a creditable 50 per cent increase in its vote at the last general election. But, shackled by the image that it is still a predominantly ”white’’ party, it still only managed 17 per cent of the national vote, while the ANC captured 66 per cent.
Dr Ramphele, a former lover of Steve Biko, one of the most iconic black rights campaigners murdered by the apartheid regime, is free of any toxic ”white’’ stigma. Her new grouping promises a different challenge altogether for the ANC. These key political realignments have served to amplify the challenge to South Africa’s standard miracle mythology from the Pistorius case.
The Blade Runner who bestrode the London Olympics and Paralympics has become virtually a hunted animal following the Valentine’s Day killing of his model girlfriend, Reeva Steenkamp.
For years Pistorius, 26, has been a household name in South Africa, where his fight against adversity, overcoming the childhood double amputation of his lower legs to compete as a sprinter in any field, had echoes of the country’s struggle for equality. And it was in London that the Pistorius brand – which is what he had become with multimillion-pound endorsements – went global. So when news broke on February 14 that he had shot dead his 29-year-old girlfriend at his upmarket home on a private estate near Pretoria, interest was worldwide.
Not since the helicopter-mounted camera followed O J Simpson as he was pursued in his white Ford Bronco by the LAPD has the unrolling case against a murder suspect been so meticulously followed in real time.
And while the Simpson case in the mid-1990s predated the internet, Pistorius’s bail application has been put on trial by Twitter, gobbets of material, sometimes fact, sometimes opinion, sometimes irrelevant froth, exploding out of the courtroom like popcorn from a hot pan of oil.
With the legal system allowing for the disclosure at this early stage of so much material that other criminal justice codes, including Britain, would never allow, observers have had rich pickings. The floor plan of Pistorius’s house has been put into the public domain. Within hours this meant you could go to websites where it is possible to virtually walk through his house: from the balcony on the first floor, through the master bedroom before turning right and passing the corner-set bath to the lavatory cubicle where Miss Steenkamp was shot dead.
Facial expressions of his supporters had been tweeted. At times the courtroom looked like a film set, the lighting designed to frame Pistorius aglow while the rest of the room was cast into shadow.
And into the cavernous, insatiable vacuum of international interest issues too serious to be parsed in the staccato of 140-character, stream-of-consciousness, knee-jerk social media feeds have been dragged.
Gun culture is one; the court heard that Pistorius owned at least one firearm and had applied for licences for six more. The internet has filled with ill-informed misrepresentations of South Africa awash with guns. The facts tell a different story: 12 guns for every 100 people, compared with 31 in France, 45 in Switzerland and 88 in America.
Police bungling has spawned more criticism after the first investigating officer, Hilton Botha, admitted contaminating the crime scene by not wearing protective overshoes, misrepresenting as a banned steroid a herbal remedy in Pistorius’s bathroom, and other oversights.
It then turned out he faces seven counts of attempted murder following a shooting two years ago. Botha has now been relieved of the case. But if crimes were only solved by perfect police officers then few crimes would be solved anywhere.
As a foreigner who chooses South Africa as a home to bring up my children, the Pistorius case underlines this important point. This is a work-in-progress country. The people are no more or less violent than anywhere else in the world but the turbulence of their recent history does lead, unsurprisingly, to problems with crime, bungling police and celebrities who face enormous and potentially unmanageable pressure from newly acquired wealth and status.
South Africa has a very dynamic equilibrium, the equilibrium of a rugby ball balanced on its end. Britain feels like the ball on its side, easy to rock back to a resting position if nudged, whereas South Africa wobbles dramatically when pushed. I love that sense of edge, of unpredictability and dynamism. But one thing it has taught me: don’t believe in miracles.
Tim Butcher, former Africa bureau chief of ‘The Daily Telegraph’, is the author of ‘Blood River’ and ‘Chasing the Devil’
“To live in Africa, you must know what it is to die in Africa”,
– Ernest Hemingway