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This article was originally featured in the Finanical Times.


The Oscar Pistorius trial is not a parable

12 September 2014

Oscar Pistorius has been found guilty of culpable homicide. Judge Thokozile Masipa has found that there is not enough evidence to convict the amputee-athlete of the premeditated murder of Reeva Steenkamp. In effect, she has accepted some of Pistorius' defence, following his account that there was a dangerous intruder behind his bathroom door. Still, he killed his girlfriend even if he pulled the trigger thinking it was an intruder rather than her. And so he faces jail when he is sentenced.

This trial has pitted two images of South Africa against each other. On the one side there is a man, Pistorius, who has repeatedly proved himself to be contemptuous of the law - in the way he takes it into his own hands, in the way he fires guns in public, in the way he blames everyone else, including his defence team, for his shortcomings. This man, Olympian or not, is a product of the South Africa that we have read about, and that many of us have experienced personally, myself included, down the barrel of a gun. This is a South Africa of machismo, of entitlement, of violence and of retribution.

On the other side there is a woman, Judge Masipa. In South Africa, many are angry with her judgment and feel Pistorius should have been found guilty of murder. The judgment will almost certainly go to appeal.

Still, few will dispute that she presided over a court that was cool and rational, thoughtful and accessible, well organised, and even - when called for - empathetic. A former anti-apartheid journalist, Judge Masipa represents the marvel of democratic South Africa only two decades since it seemed destined for interminable civil war: a constitutional democracy where the rule of law prevails, where things generally work.

That Judge Masipa is a black woman - the second to have been appointed to the bench - is by no means insignificant. To white people such as Pistorius, who fear a black intruder lurking in their bathroom each time they hear a noise, she presents another image. She represents the same to men who feel they need to arm themselves to protect their kith and kin.

As South Africa collects itself in the aftermath of the all-consuming trial, it should be clear to everyone that our safeguards for the future lie with people like Judge Masipa rather than people like Pistorius.

Nonetheless, the Pistorius trial is not a "mirror" for contemporary South Africa, as some commentators have styled it. A criminal trial is about the weighing of specific and singular evidence: this was a court case not a parable.

A former anti-apartheid journalist, Judge Masipa represents the marvel of democratic South Africa

Certainly, many things came up that are specifically South African: not least the extraordinary fact that Pistorius lives in a country where firing live ammunition through a locked door could even be advanced as legitimate self-defence.

He sought to convince the court that his fear was reasonable but he also sought to get the court to accept that he was a victim of anxiety disorder, born of his disability, and his mother's (read: his people's) paranoia about crime. Judge Masipa rejected this by stating - not in so many words - that if he had anxiety disorder, so too did everyone else in the country: to accept his defence would be to let loose anarchy.

We South Africans have a tendency towards exceptionalism, perhaps because of the way we have punched above our weight globally, from Nelson Mandela onwards. Maybe this is why we loved Pistorius so much in the first place and subsequently felt so betrayed by him: we bathed in his reflected glory, just as we bathed in that of Mandela.

But this exceptionalism is a dangerous impulse, for it leads to a manic-depressive national psyche. Either we are "the world's greatest miracle" or we are the next Zimbabwe, another third-world basket case. Either we are Desmond Tutu's "rainbow children of God", or we are a nation of criminals.

When there are bad cops on the Pistorius case, we are useless and on the road to damnation; when there is a competent team prosecuting him, we are on the road to salvation. Oscar is a hero or Oscar is a villain. It's never just another day in South Africa.

The writer is the author of 'Dispatcher: Lost and Found in Johannesburg'