Oscar Pistorius trial turns into a fight to control public opinion

Oscar Pistorius, centre, leaves North Gauteng High Court at the end of the fourth day of his trial on Thursday in Pretoria. Photo: Getty Oscar Pistorius, centre, leaves North Gauteng High Court at the end of the fourth day of his trial on Thursday in Pretoria. Photo: Getty

Oscar Pistorius, centre, leaves North Gauteng High Court at the end of the fourth day of his trial on Thursday in Pretoria. Photo: Getty

Oscar Pistorius, centre, leaves North Gauteng High Court at the end of the fourth day of his trial on Thursday in Pretoria. Photo: Getty

Pretoria: The prosecution of superstar athlete Oscar Pistorius for the murder of his girlfriend Reeva Steenkamp is not just a legal battle being fought inside Pretoria’s High Court.

There is a far bigger war being waged outside it – in the court of public opinion.

For the first time, South Africans are watching their legal system in action live on a 24-hour TV station dedicated to the high-profile case, an extraordinary development for a country that did not even have television until 1975.

In a pre-trial decision, a judge ruled cameras would be permitted in the courtroom in order to allow for global broadcast of the proceedings.

That judge, who is not hearing the trial itself, found the case was in the public interest and it was important to ensure South Africans could follow the case wherever they may be.

”Particularly those who are poor and who have found it difficult to access the justice system, they should have a firsthand account of the proceedings involving a local and international icon,” Justice Dunstan Mlambo said.

But the decision means 27-year-old Pistorius – known as ”Blade Runner” for the high-tech prosthetic legs he runs on – is not the only one on trial.

The case has put unprecedented focus on South Africa: its gun culture, crime rate, and legal system.

Interviewed this week on Channel 199 – now known as the ”Pistorius Channel” – Nathi Mncube from the National Prosecutions Authority, which is running the murder case, discussed how he felt the first couple of days had gone.

He said he believed the case was going ”very smoothly”, but was cautious about whether the evidence would be completed in the three weeks allocated.

Mncube was even asked how he felt the state’s first two witnesses, Michelle Burger and Estelle van de Merwe, had fared under the strident cross-examination of Pistorius’ charismatic barrister, Barry Roux, SC.

He said he did not wish to comment precisely on the evidence, but appeared to reassure anyone who thought the defence had landed some serious blows to the prosecution case.

“It’s to be expected, it is a serious matter, the accused is facing a very, very serious charge,” he said. “So you expect the defence to do whatever they can to show he did not have the intention to do this crime, and it was not unlawful … but there’s been nothing untoward so far.”

It’s clear the prosecution is putting its best spin on the proceedings, but so is Team Pistorius.

The athlete, who created history in 2012 by becoming the first disabled athlete to compete at an Olympics, has appeared demure and focused. There has been no sign of the smiling, confident runner whose face is recognisable the world over.

He and his family have presented a united front, keeping mute on the evidence but standing solidly together in the face of extraordinary interest. Pistorius’ brother Carl and sister Aimee have been with him each day, as has his uncle Arnold among other family and friends.

Just two cracks in his otherwise steely facade have exposed turmoil. Each has coincided with the discussion about the substantial injuries he caused Steenkamp when he shot her dead.

On Tuesday, Pistorius doubled over in the dock, covering his ears with his hands – in the same way the prosecution alleges Steenkamp had done when her boyfriend fired a final bullet into the locked toilet cubicle. He wiped away tears from his eyes moments later.

Then on Thursday, the court heard testimony from his neighbour Johan Stipp, who was the first person on the scene after the shooting.

Stipp told the court Pistorius had been ”very, very upset” in the aftermath that night.

”He definitely wanted her to live … he was crying, there were tears on his face.”

He said he thought Pistorius was “trying … to get atonement”.

As  Stipp spoke, the “fastest man on no legs” was clutching his rosary beads as he sobbed, shoulders heaving and dry retching.

When he left the court less than an hour later, his face was ashen. His sister Aimee had sat with him in the dock and consoled him after the trial judge had left the court.

It was undoubtedly a difficult afternoon, irrespective of whether he is guilty or innocent of murder. Even the most hardened cynics could probably not help but feel moved by his apparent distress. But those same cynics may well have realised that the display could certainly not have hurt his standing in the eyes of the public.

There has been a great conscious effort made to harness the support Pistorius still has around the world.

His hundreds of thousands of Twitter followers were urged last month to follow a new account, @OscarHardTruth, for ”factual updates” in the case.

The account, linked to his official website, said it will share “alerts to possible briefings/statements, links to key media coverage and clarification when necessary”.

And while his public relations team seeks to control the official message from the Pistorius camp, others have channelled their adoration of him into ardent public support.

Known as “Pistorians”, they are flooding his own website and other established fan sites posting well-wishes and love.

“Support for Oscar Pistorius – athlete, ambassador, inspiration – innocent until proven guilty”, declares one website with hundreds of messages.

Supporters proclaim they will pray for him, and in doing so urge others to “think before you judge”.

Online forums are a long way from Pretoria’s North Gauteng High Court, but each afternoon hundreds of local school kids gather and scream “Oscar! Oscar!” as they clamour to see a glimpse of the superstar.

To them, it doesn’t matter whether he’s guilty or innocent. They have been touched by his celebrity.

The case has also led to attempts to capitalise on the global stage it presents.

On Wednesday, Gauteng Premier Nomvula Mokonyane arrived at the trial urging support for victims of crime – especially women. She wore a sticker with  Steenkamp’s face on it.

”In this instance, we must never forget someone got killed, as to whether that person was killed intentionally or not, the fact is Reeva is dead, she got shot,” Mokonyane in a break between witnesses.

”As the African National Congress Women’s League, we will forever be on the side of victims. [Reeva’s] death is a pain to every South African woman.”

She denied she was trying to make the case a ”party political issue”, saying she just wanted to make a statement that ”this trial is not just about Oscar Pistorius only”.

It is, after all an election year.

The first week of the trial concluded with fewer than 10 witnesses called to give evidence.

Chief prosecutor Gerrie Nel has a list of 107, with the majority expected to testify – and that’s before the defence calls any witnesses of their own.

So far the case has centred largely on the accounts of neighbours – what people heard and when they heard it, on the night Pistorius shot and killed  Steenkamp.

The events centre on a small window of time, and split-second thoughts and actions are being examined.

Did the couple argue loudly for some time before Pistorius’ temper flared fatally, as the prosecution alleges?

Or did the man who inspired millions really mistake his girlfriend for an intruder, pumping four bullets into his locked toilet door in a bid to neutralise an imminent threat to their safety?

To those who live in the gated, privileged communities on the outskirts of Pretoria, it is not an uncommon story.

As the court has heard, many South Africans live in fear. They sleep with firearms beside their beds, just in case someone breaks into their homes to disturb their peace.

Plenty have been killed accidentally – and more will be.

A husband and wife who live some 177 metres from the Pistorius mansion were  subjected to a fierce grilling this week from Roux, the athlete’s counsel.

As key prosecution witnesses, there was no doubt which side they sat.

But even they had to admit to initially assuming the screaming and gunshots they heard in the early hours of Valentine’s Day morning 2013 were reactions to a home invasion.

And like Pistorius, his neighbour Stipp also said he slept with a gun within arm’s reach of his pillow.

The case has a long way to go, and is unlikely to conclude before the end of the month.

But South Africa – and the world – will still be watching.     

Comments are closed.