The Oscar Pistorius case: history written on a woman’s body

The Oscar Pistorius affair has exposed the fragility of South Africa’s post-apartheid settlement.

Oscar Pistorius, ready to race. Photograph: Getty Images
Oscar Pistorius, ready to race. Photograph: Getty Images

The 14th of February was an eerie day in Cape Town: the heat, the road closures, the sense of a city under lockdown ahead of President Jacob Zuma’s State of the Nation address that Valentine’s Day evening. And all the while, in a gated complex in Pretoria, where Reeva Steenkamp, the 29-year-old model and girlfriend of the Olympian/Paralympian Oscar Pistorius, had been shot, the biggest news story of the year was breaking.

This coincidence of parliament opening and Pistorius falling offered itself all too obviously as a national metaphor. Some pundits remarked that such hypermasculine sporting icons are destined to fail. They are fashioned by the media into the carriers of vast social fantasies, even as the competitive, corporate world in which they win fame makes them inadequate to accommodate any national story, let alone one as complex and painful as that of modern South Africa.

Yet, at the same time, others were already enlisting Pistorius, who is 26, in another kind of national metaphor. In this, he represented the ability of the previously disadvantaged to compete with able-bodied nations, to be world class, before disintegrating into self-interest, confusion and violence – a violence acted out mostly on the bodies of South African women.

On that strange State of the Nation day, Zuma’s speech had been moved from its normal morning slot to the evening. This meant that the president made the trip from his Cape Dutch residence to parliament on sealed-off highways at the height of rush hour, causing delays on the city’s tangled road network and resentment among working people. Private cars refused to pull over for the state motorcade; there was angry hooting.

Some suggested that the refusal to budge in the face of police convoys was a commentary on the leadership of the African National Congress (ANC). Or was it, others countered, just the reaction of racists to a black president in an expensive car?

This exchange – local and throwaway as it was – stayed with me even as every television channel and newspaper sank its teeth into the Steenkamp-Pistorius story. It points to a constant dilemma here, one that goes some way towards explaining why political debate in this country seems so stuck. This concerns the language of blame in South Africa: the question of how we identify perpetrators – whether historical or criminal, whether across social domains or in intimate domestic spaces. And this, in turn, is related to the problem of distinguishing between various kinds of critique, in separating the progressive from the reactionary.

Were those noisy car horns the sound of committed but genuinely exasperated citizens? Or of disengaged outliers who always wanted to see the ANC fail? A bit of both, no doubt, each inflecting the other.

The episode seemed emblematic of how little agreement there is as to what form the language of political critique should take in South Africa, where it comes from and who should be allowed to wield it. The rush to blame and judgement in the Pistorius affair – and the range of perpetrators that it summoned from the depths of the national imaginary – brought some of these dynamics to the fore. As the country’s bad week unfolded, from Pistorius’s arrest to his bail hearing, the language of political debate became ever more entangled with the business of solving a crime.

After 2012, many South Africans were hoping for a better year. Confronted with chronic mismanagement in the education system, with the ANC government’s attempts to pass the much-disputed Protection of Information Bill (popularly known as the “Secrecy Bill”), which redefines the “national interest” where government information is concerned, and with the police shooting of striking miners at the Marikana mine, comentators were prompted to return to the apartheid past.

The “gutter education” of black schoolchildren under apartheid and in the time of the National Party prime minister Hendrik Verwoerd, said Mamphela Ramphele, the prominent businesswoman and anti-apartheid activist (and former partner of Steve Biko), was better than instruction for learners today. The Secrecy Bill, said the Right2Know Campaign, was a step back towards totalitarianism and apartheid-era censorship. And as the most lethal use of force by the state against civilians since 1960, the Marikana massacre was repeatedly described as the Sharpeville of post-apartheid South Africa.

What is at stake in such linkings of past with present? They seem at once inevitable and limited, both unanswerable and unsatisfying. Unsatisfying because they flatten out history into a succession of all-too-usable episodes. They show up the limited repertoire of conceptual shapes available in the public culture as South Africa tries to imagine the relation between past and present. But more than this, they fuse with a strain of public discourse that works either to excuse past injustice or to dismiss present transformation out of hand.

In an article published last April in South Africa’s Sunday Times and entitled “How history haunts us”, Jeremy Cronin, now deputy minister of public works, took issue with debates that turn obsessively on whether to “blame” apartheid for current ills. Because Cronin is an outstanding political theorist, the analysis was incisive. “The flippant dismissal of the weight of the past on our collective present,” he wrote, “is just as unhelpful as its opposite, a simplistic evocation of that past as an alibi for our own weaknesses.”

The point was not to blame (or exonerate) the past – as if it were the accused in a murder trial. Rather, the point was to assess its continuing impact on the present: the structural underpinnings of the mining industry, for example, or the deeply distorted and racialised geography of South Africa’s cities. But because Cronin is an ex-poet who now defends the ANC’s proposed media tribunal (and also, by the by, a deputy general secretary of the Communist Party who was once responsible for “recapitalising” the minibus taxi industry), the analysis was also vexed at various points. It was notable for what it didn’t say, and for its reluctance to acknowledge corruption, poor leadership and mismanagement in the ruling alliance.

In the two-day debate that followed Zuma’s speech to the nation, Cronin again adopted the language of accusation. He criticised the opposition for focusing on “division, negativity and carping”. He urged the president to invite the Democratic Alliance and other parties to “come down off their high perch of self-righteousness” and join the rest of the country “in the often complex and essential consensus-building process”.

Increasingly in South Africa, it is not just the state’s failings that are up for debate, but the very language of the debate. On the one hand, there is a phalanx of ANC spokespeople who seem oddly defensive, and unwilling to concede that robust and constant critique is vital to the democratic process. On the other hand, there is an opposition bloc and a range of voices from civil society that, many South Africans feel, are too ready to assign blame and too eager to deflect it from themselves. They have too much self-assurance and self-righteousness, their critics say, and too little awareness of the place from which they speak.

A subsidiary debate about how political commentators (and especially white male commentators) should conduct themselves in public discussion rumbled on throughout 2012. It was suggested that they should think much more carefully about the historical process that had produced the platform from which they issued their indictments of the government. It was even suggested that they should, in some cases, consider shutting up altogether.

The final logic of this argument is paralysing, because it asks for a silence that would only serve the status quo. It is also connected in subtle ways to the way in which South Africa’s post-1994 settlement allowed many to get away without answering – in any legal or material way – for the crime of apartheid. That knowledge resides at a deep level in the body politic, skewing the language of debate and leading the parties to refute each other’s basic premises and to deny each other the right to speak.

Little tools of everyday life: keys, remote control, watch, gun - Pistorius's bedside table, April 2010. Photograph: Paul Fargues/Contour/Getty Images

Is it too much to suggest that because blame was not assigned when it should have been assigned, it now circulates through the South African system like so much excess current? The Truth and Reconciliation Commission, for all its successes, has come to be criticised for forcing premature closure on questions of culpability and for placing confession and amnesty above justice. As a result, the unrecognised humiliation and unprocessed shame has built up in the social body, waiting to be earthed.

As 2012 turned into 2013, the bad times did not stop. Strikes continued in the platinum belt and farmworkers in the Western Cape began to protest about being paid a paltry R65 (£4.80) a day. They shut down the N1 highway, realising how easy it was to do, then did it again. Rhinos, named 2012 “Newsmakers of the Year” by the National Press Club in Pretoria, kept on being killed. The Press Club’s decision to award the rhinoceros this accolade in the year of Marikana is as dumbfounding an example as any of how South Africans live in different worlds and talk at cross-purposes. But the poaching statistics added to the pervasive sense of melancholy: slowly, another bit of the national iconography was being effaced.

The epidemic of sexual violence against South Africa’s women also continued, exemplified by the horrifying gang rape and mutilation of Anene Booysen, a 17-year-old found disembowelled at a construction site near Bredasdorp in the rural Western Cape on 2 February. Some journalists began to ask why South Africans were not reacting as Indians had done to the murderous attack on Jyoti Singh Pandey on a bus in Delhi, and wondered what it might take for middle-class citizens to put their bodies on the line for the safety of women. And then the Steenkamp- Pistorius news broke, sweeping all before it.

As the story’s centre of gravity shifted back and forth over the course of a week and rumour and misinformation proliferated, I thought of those cheap games that come in Christmas crackers, where the object is to tilt the toy until the silver ball lodges in this or that hole. The “blame game” is the tired phrase used by business interests that urge South Africans to stop pinning everything on colonialism or Verwoerd or Zuma or the arms deal – to stop all that and “move on”. In the week between Pistorius’s arrest and the hearing at which he was granted bail of R1m (£74,000), one saw a blame game played out at high speed and in the full glare of the media. The unfolding drama was lodged first in this pre-prepared groove and then dislodged and placed in another, then another.

At first, Reeva Steenkamp’s death was presented as a tragic Valentine’s Day mistake. The speed with which this narrative emerged in the media was significant. There was a tacit assumption that a domestic crime such as this one was immediately readable. The unspoken perpetrator here was the spectral (black) intruder in the home, a product of a state that could not ensure public safety. Pistorius’s statement during the bail hearing conjures this scene repeatedly, with its mentions of construction workers’ ladders outside the open bathroom window and a sliding door left ajar.

Then the dominant narrative abruptly changed to one of domestic abuse and Pistorius’s testosterone-fuelled masculinity. The gigantic archive of the internet was trawled to provide evidence for each variation on the story. An old New York Times profile described Pistorius’s obsession with guns and spoke of the athlete’s hips as a “giant engine” required to move his lower limbs at a much higher rate in order for him to compete with able-bodied runners. He emerged as over-revved, hooked on speed, a man who crashed speedboats and drove too fast.

The Nike billboards came down almost immediately as sponsorship deals moved offshore. But Pistorius’s fall as a national hero was slower and more lurid. Speculation began to turn on the macabre detail of exactly when that Valentine’s night he had attached his prosthetic legs. Pistorius’s hi-tech blades had propelled him to fame. Now, the prosthetic legs suggested premeditation. Staving off the suggestion of culpability required us to picture him moving around a darkened bedroom on his stumps, in panic.

A New York Times headline used the inevitable variation on Alan Paton – “Cry, the misogynistic country” – and some commentators mentioned Booysen and Steenkamp in the same breath, remarking that violence against women was an “equal opportunity” affair in this country. Others wondered if comparing two individuals with such different lives was not doing further harm to at least one of the victims. Perhaps, some gender experts suggested, the task was rather to trace two variants of toxic masculinity in the country: one that acts out of powerlessness and humiliation, another that acts out of privilege and impunity.

Increasingly, the media themselves came in for criticism, because a glamorous white couple were getting the kind of global attention that black victims never do. Steenkamp appeared in the Sunand other tabloids, publications that (as the Guardian columnist Marina Hyde pointed out) still asterisk the word “t*t” but are happy to put a dead woman in a bikini on the front page. A reality TV show that she had been cast in aired on the Saturday after her murder – as a tribute, the producers insisted, as they charged exorbitant sums for clips.

By Monday, a cold front rolled in off the sea, as they do after heatwaves. The foghorn in Sea Point began to sound, a mournful lowing that went on for days. When the heat returned, the lead detective in the Pistorius case, Hilton Botha, was cross-examined and his version of events began to falter. In an almost gratuitous twist, it was revealed that Botha, too, was under investigation (on several counts of attempted murder), and he was taken off the case. The story lodged, with a thud, into another familiar groove – the ineptitude of the police and the National Prosecuting Authority –where it will probably stay until the case comes to trial.

What can we say about this week of media saturation and shape-shifting debate? First, that in South Africa, a life such as Oscar Pistorius’s can’t just be a life. It inevitably becomes enmeshed in a story of national exceptionalism. Yet if there is to be a wider allegory, perhaps it should be more concerned with the rush to judgement.

The public has learned that even in the realm of forensic evidence, entirely divergent acts of interpretation can take place. Instead of homing in on a verdict, the high-speed debates and trial by public opinion have spun off in all directions. Yet they all lead back inexorably to social questions and to all that unfinished business buried in the South African body politic.

Finally, the case has shown how, when stories are produced and reproduced at such speed, they expose their own hidden agendas and blind spots more readily.

The Pistorius affair will now fade from the news, at least until the trial. But the insight it has offered into the workings of blame challenges us to refine a language of social responsibility and to find a way of speaking that all South Africans can feel recognised by and in which they can recognise each other. Without that, we are left with tasteless jokes, languages veering past each other and ironies that are no use to anyone.

Hedley Twidle is a lecturer in English at the University of Cape Town. He won the Bodley Head/Financial Times Essay Prize in 2012