Mike van Graan
Mike van Graan

Oscar Pistorius and the State of the Nation

In a recent conversation with a cartoonist friend, he suggested that his daily work had changed from providing insights into our lived reality through over-the-top images, to toning down our over-the-top reality for a baffled and battered citizenry, through light relief.

Artists, cartoonists and writers often use metaphors to provide insights into the state of our society or some aspect of it. While President Jacob Zuma’s halting, unconvincing delivery of his State of the Nation address was an apt metaphor in itself for the government’s poor delivery of its oft-repeated “better-life-for-all” promises, it was Oscar Pistorius that provided the best “state-of-the-nation” metaphor on the very day that the president opened parliament.

Like Pistorius who had overcome immeasurable obstacles to achieve sporting greatness, the “rainbow nation” was once the darling of the world, having achieved the political miracle of transitioning — relatively violence-free — from a society divided by apartheid to a non-racial, constitutional democracy.

As the evidence against Pistorius mounts, the jury is nevertheless out as to whether he will be consigned to the dustbin of sporting history along with Lance Armstrong, Hansie Cronje and other clay-footed heroes. Similarly, overwhelming evidence of serving an elite at the expense of the majority, of endemic corruption and looting of the public purse would have a once-supportive jury faintly hoping that our nation can turn it around, rather than become “just another failing African state”.

The 1995 Springbok rugby team and Pistorius reflect how sport and sporting heroes have a way of uniting the nation — at least across racial lines. And when such heroes fall, they reveal how fickle and fragile such national racial harmony is when it is united around a temporary emotion associated with winning, or even around a personality, rather than a set of values, principles or ideals. By contrast, the Constitution — premised on values, principles and ideals — is a vain ambition that struggles to take root in our lived reality or day-to-day relationships.

Once a unifying figure, Pistorius’s actions have unleashed a social media storm, at least some of it polarised along racial lines. Rather than search for common positions such as “yet another example of the high rate of violence against women” or “how terrible that a life has been lost and a hero fallen” or even “innocent until proven guilty”, commentary forums are abuzz with racial invective as the opportunity is used to vent against anything ranging from the South African judicial system and police force, to the media and the apparent favouritism shown towards Pistorius because of his celebrity status. (The latter though, is also a reflection of aspects of our national life where we are all — in theory — equal before the law, but where the politically connected eg Schabir Shaik, Jackie Selebi and Tony Yengeni obtain preferential treatment.)

Pistorius reflects the nation’s divide between the rich and the poor in their access to justice and their ability to deal with the justice system. While the wealthy paralympian athlete is able to appoint an experienced team of advocates to defend him in court and to appoint an international spin doctor to defend him in the court of public opinion, thousands of poorer accused spend — on average — two years in custody awaiting their trials, a travesty of justice and of the human-rights principles enshrined in the country’s Constitution. The state of the nation is such that equality before the law is rendered nonsense by a justice system that serves the rich significantly better than it does the poor.

As exemplified by Pistorius, South Africa is a violent country. Violence is endemic to our society from the structural violence of poverty and inequality that assault the dignity and depraves the humanity of millions of people, the criminal violence reflected in the high incidence of assaults, robberies, hijackings, murder and farm attacks, the violence that accompanies service-delivery protests and the violence of the state in dealing with such protests, to the domestic violence that afflicts our society, the incidents of road rage and school bullying. The proliferation of guns in such a society — ostensibly to protect innocents from the prevailing violence — appears to increase the levels of violence and contribute (as in the case of Pistorius) to the execution of acts of violence.

Pistorius’s alleged killing of Reeva Steenkamp highlights a particular form of violence that reflects a particular stain on our nation: violence against women. On February 2, the 24th anniversary of the unbanning of the ANC, PAC and other political parties, Anene Booysen was found disembowelled, barely alive, having been gang-raped. While the nation still reeled from this crime that reminded us of the regular violation of women and girls in our country, Pistorius reminded us of the high rates of femicide in South Africa, with reports claiming that here, a woman is murdered by her partner every eight hours.

With his extraordinary feats on the race track, Pistorius attracted large amounts of “foreign direct investment” from local and multinational companies seeking to associate their fortunes with his. Within a few hours of news of the shooting of Steenkamp, billboards featuring Pistorius were being dismantled and advertisers were rescinding their support. Similarly, there was a time when South Africa was deemed to be an attractive destination for foreign and local investment, but the poor stewardship of the country in the last number of years, compounded by the strikes and resultant state violence in the platinum industry, have caused investors to flee, or at least to take a more cautious approach.

A question that many are asking is how someone that has achieved so much, that has so much going for him, that is so well-loved across the world could do something such as Pistorius is alleged to have done. There are two possible answers that also speak to aspects of the state of our nation.

The first is that precisely because of a sense of power that derives from such widespread acclaim, there is a possible measure of impunity. We see this too in our national life, where many in power engage in acts of criminality with impunity, believing that they will, or could, get away with it.

The second is that Pistorius simply did not possess the emotional, psychological and other personal tools to deal with and manage his fame, his wealth, his deep personal challenges and flaws so that ultimately, there was an inevitable explosion. It now emerges that the signs were there for many to see, but there was a reluctance to act because of the powerful position Pistorius occupied in the public’s mind, because Pistorius did not invite such help and because — it is alleged — he kept a black book of people who crossed him, using intimidation and threats against those who might expose his flaws.

This is not unlike the ruling party that — rather than create a context in which those with skills and experience (whether they agree with the party or not) can contribute to meeting the country’s key challenges — fends off criticism with intimidation and threats and alienates a citizenry that may otherwise have shown enormous goodwill in building a more just, more humane and more equitable society. Consequently, the explosions are happening on a regular basis, with Marikana being the most vivid.

We are all Oscar Pistorius. Oscar Pistorius is us.

What a terrifying thought.

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    • http://www.gustavgous.co.za Gustav Gous

      Well written, Mike. Too true to be good. Not only the nation , but every individual must do selfreflection.

    • Venita

      At last a proper insight into the deeper issues surrounding this over-hyped “people” crime. Will it actually be possible for to grow up someday?

    • Simon

      I felt an incredible void after reading this article.

    • carlos

      you 100% correct and to compound what you are saying is that even our head of state is so corruption tainted.this era will pass but we paying dearly.

    • http://none Lyndall Beddy

      Family Murders are ALSO different to either Spousal/Partner Abuse or Gang Rapes.

      Most South Africans are very religious, whatever their religion, and Family Murders are the result of despair, depression, lack of welfare support, and wanting “to take the family with them” and not leave them “frightened and alone”

    • bernpm

      “We are all Oscar Pistorius. Oscar Pistorius is us. ”


    • Greg

      Yes, truly a terrifying thought…Oscar, like the rest of us, does not have a leg to stand on.

    • Rod MacKenzie

      Put this one on my Facebook, great analysis…

    • Tofolux

      @Mike, it is this type of analysis that does absolutely nothing for the plight of women. In fact, to link this violent attack and brutal murder to the state of the nation shows how little or how far removed you are from society. It must be so easy to sit in a glass house and point fingers whilst the very “cold and insulated” communities you create, falls down around you. But clearly this analogy once again proves that we should shut our ears when charlatans speak. Our communities worked because we understood the notion of good neighbourliness. The concept of ”your child is my child” was a given and any issues of indiscipline, arguments, disorder was sorted out democratically. And yes, we had crime but these were dealt with through traditional courts and the perpetrator learnt very hard lessons through community justice. And this was not so long ago. And yet, what is it that these charlatans propagate? Gated communities that are constantly under watch by someone? You have attackd our traditional leaders, you attack our customs, you attack the notion of elders and you attack how we live in our communities. This while women are beaten and shot in gated communities? So clearly this alternative does not work. The problem with those who criticise my country is the fact that you are nowhere to be seen in this ”rose-garden”. U & et al must be special human bngs to rebuild a nation in 18yrs becos thse attacks is the result of how you r breaking down & isolating…

    • Hadrian Beaton

      This article is just another racist article saying that it is due to poor governance of the “black regime” resulting in increased violence. So people have to carry guns and shoot their girlfriends and wives… Shame the government get blamed for everything ,,ne?

      There is little or no relationship between Oscars act of taking a gun and shooting his girlfriend and the how the country is governed. There was no black guy standing behind him and saying…. hey we are corrupt we going to steal your taxes. “So shoot her….”

      He is a big boy that competed in the international field and need to own up on his own actions.
      Sorry but you are just more non-South African propagandist…..

    • goofball

      Tofolux – wow, your post makes me realize how we each read and understand what we read – so very differently. My understanding of your posting is that you have completely misread Mike Gouws – but there you go – we all have our very wrong perceptions and understanings – some more wrong than others!

    • Capie in Amsterdam

      Guilty or innocent, I am not comfortable uttering the name Oscar Pistorius in the same breath as Armstrong and Cronje. Systemic fraud for personal gain, as lacking in morals as that is, is not the same as this. And is it fame to blame when we do lose a woman to domestic violence every 8 hours? The partners perpetrating these crimes most likely lack “the emotional, psychological and other personal tools” to deal with their “personal challenges and flaws”… But these are likely challenges of poverty and other frustrations, not the challenge of managing fame and wealth.

      The fact that so many of us immediately believed, before details emerged, that there had been a burglar, that Pistorius had felt the need to act in self-defense and that this was because of the violent nature of South African society speaks volumes. In that moment we were all Oscar Pistorius and Oscar Pistorius was us.

      After the bail hearing on 19 February my faith in this defense is fading.

    • Hameeda

      I really like your metaphor but I refuse to believe in it purely because I am an optimistic person and do not believe we will explode with murderous rage as a country.

    • http://www.jtcomms.co.za Vanessa Perumal

      The frustrating reality of Mike van Graans article which reflects a strenght, truth and understanding of a current context of a bruising South Africa desperately in need of leadership and cleansing is that Mike’s article and his thought process and relevant needed leadership will not get the public postioning and dialogue it deserves.
      The lack of media intellegence to anchor our country through good and bad times reflect how desperately we need trasformation of media, content producers, thoughtleaders that can address muliple issues affecting SA and our rainbow nation.

    • Tofolux

      @goofball, this analysis is as bad as the storybook non-sense we are taught about cows jumping over the moon. I mean for all this so-called intelligentsia & their “expert advice” not only is it flawed, it is just plain awful.eg this argument premises that all the powerful(whoeva they r?) in our nation, excluded from any due process of law and the court and is mooted as a fact. Now if this was true, then what is Pistorius doing in jail and attempting to get bail? Also hw did Madiba & JZ appear in court? It also says the ANC has a hand in all thse crimes. There is an undertone of bias and priviledge, but this evident only in the reporting. So who is responsible for the tilting of bias and in whs favor? Is it govt, the nation, or the ruling party? Insted of adressing the undertone of biasness & fingering the real culprits for misleading but also detracting attention from the real issues of this awful violence against a defencless woman. The real problems in our nation are these charlatans who have arrogated themselves into “experts”. They are unnecessarily judgemental,critical and downright unhelpful. Instead of helping this nation and instead of making this a better state they sit on fences and throw stones at tried and tested practise that are helpful in communities. So we call upon them to provide alternatives mindful of our constitution that says we are all equal. We call upon THEM, these critics of our nation, to test our constitution in courts and in society!

    • Penny

      A stunningly beautiful and insightful article. Many thanks.

    • Mr. Direct

      @Tofolux – “Our communities worked because we understood the notion of good neighbourliness”. So please explain why there is so much crime in South Africa if everyone is looking out for their neighbours. Sounds like fantasy to me.

      @Hadrian Beaton – Being critical and being racist are two completely different things. The author is not blaming the government for this, he merely attempts to compare the two events in parallel. So, if you think the ANC is completely faultless, you would consider his argument to be that Pistorius is completely justified. Clearly though, neither is the case. Both have fame from previous successes, not current.

    • Damian Garside

      A nice piece Mike, seeing Pistorius as our revealing key metaphor, and moving from there to expose the fiction that is equality before the law. What strikes me as crazy is sticking with the intruder story when it is so crazily implausible given what has since emerged. Are they trying to defend his innocence or his image? The story that most protects his image does not seem to be the one that is the most rational in defending a murder charge.

    • http://www.jay.com Jay

      So true, believe it or not, oscar shooting and many others is a result of all, and i mean all south africans actions. for example you see and uncle or big brother or father having a simple temper problems for example, you keep quite about it. He is then later faces a split decision to refuse been pressured by friends to abuse Anene or think before he shoots Oscar, quess whats going to be the outcome. Whether its your neighbour or even stranger, we must learn to speak out.

    • http://www.whammedia.co.za Paul Pereira

      Great article, till the end, clever though it seemed. Fact is that if “we are all Oscar Pistorius” then none of us is responsible for our actions. It reminds me of Cyril Rhamaphosa claiming that “we are all” responsible for the shootings at Maikana. Well’ I’m not. And I’m not Oscar Pistorius – Oscar Pistorius is. I feel no complicity at all.

    • Bev Verwey

      I think some of the content of this article infers that Oscar Pistorius is guilty of murdering Reeva Steenkamp. Wait for the evidence and the court findings before passing judgement. This is an example of trial by the media. We have no evidence that OP was an abuser of women.

    • goofball

      tofolux – OK, I can see where you are coming from – thanks!

    • Silvadaze

      You state two possibilities of what happened – both of which imply guilt. There is a third option and as a journalist you have a duty to include it. Whatever you think now, that third option is that he is innocent. To not include this option before the man has been tried is potentially libellous and definitely lax on your part. You should correct it now.

    • Glen

      oh Toffolux, Hadrian Beaton, Didn’t you miss the point! Take some time to read that article properly, comprehension 101. PLEASE.

    • Kevin Roberts
    • jacques

      Not impressed. You assume he not only killed, but murdered. A sloppy assumption at this stage in the development of things.

    • Pieter Reyneke

      ” … the “rainbow nation” was once the darling of the world, having achieved the political miracle of transitioning — relatively violence-free — from a society divided by apartheid to a non-racial, constitutional democracy… ” Sorry, but the “relatively violence free” statement is not true. Please research how violent the “People’s War” was.

      Please read, Anthea Jeffery’s “People’s War – New light on the struggle for South Africa”.

    • http://none Lyndall Beddy

      Patriarchy is about Men wanting to own “the means of production” being the Women who produce the children.

      And polygamy is about Men competing as to whom can own the most “means of production”

    • andre

      Great article mike and not sure what’s more insightful or incisive your article or the comments. I agree with jay and Paul. It is time to have less complicity and we can do so by standing up and speaking when we see abuse in small and bigger ways. I am not Oscar and i will do my best that my son is not Oscar. And when he lets rip at the dinner table i will tell Oscar, peter and Paul where to get off so that i can do what i can for my family, community and country to quit winning the negative Oscar’s.

    • http://www.thoughtleader.co.za Musa

      We are all Marikana.

    • Mike Golby

      Excellent analysis – thank you.

    • Rachel Hudson

      A brilliant systemic analysis on the state of a nation. Both powerful and empowering, suggesting many levels at which change can be wrought to effect change for the whole. A call for consciousness and conscientiousness.

    • Jo-Anne Palmer

      An insightful analogy between the ruling party and Pistorious. A pity that so many miss the intricacies of your argument…… . Many are not able to shed their cloaks of perception so that they can see the power in this image. You clearly have a passion for our land. Maybe one day we will stop replacing one hegemony for another in the veil of it being better! Perhaps it will take a woman president to address the needs of her nation.