A week is a very long time these days. In our addiction to new news, we’ve become a society with ADD, The half-life of any given story is a day, if that. Since the story that Oscar Pistorius shot and killed Reeva Steenkamp in the early hours of Valentine’s Day, we have spoken and tweeted and read about little else.
Which is a pity, because while we were obsessing over the Oscar case, Jacob Zuma gave the State of the Nation address, Mamphela Ramphele launched a new party political platform, and Sibusiso Langa, who mowed down five runners in 2011 while drunk, was given back his driver’s licence so he could prepare for his case. Do we care about any of this? Not really. The government could build a second Nkandla and we wouldn’t notice. So the power of this case to distract us has real implications for our democracy.
The ability of the shooting of Reeva Steenkamp to dominate discussion as long and as completely at it has — not just in South Africa, but across the world — speaks to its peculiar power to fascinate us. Why has this case transfixed us?
1. It involves a global celebrity. This would be news for half a day if Oscar weren’t famous. As one of our biggest global brands and a name still fresh in the memory of anyone who watched last year’s Olympic Games — that is, pretty much everyone — this story was always going to be a big one. The level of interest the international media have shown is astonishing.
2. The drama is compelling. The rich, young sports idol who overcame adversity; the model girlfriend who can speak to us only from a reality show; the grieving family swallowing tears at a press briefing: this story has all the ingredients of a blockbuster. The only trouble is that any Hollywood scriptwriter who came up with this would have the script chucked back on the grounds that it’s just not believable.
3. The core issue is simple. Did Oscar shoot Reeva deliberately or by accident? Simple issues attract more attention than complex ones. That’s why protests against etolling have been effective to date, but not protests against a much thornier issue like rape. Unlike the complexities of corruption or cheating, as in the case of Hansie Cronje, a shooting where one person was left dead is fairly simple to understand.
4. Everyone can have an opinion about it. Because the core issue is a simple one, and it revolves around a situation many of us can identify with (what would you do if you heard a noise in the bathroom in the middle of the night?) it’s easy for everyone to have an opinion. One of the reasons the story has kept our attention is that it facilitates conversation. Online and offline, it’s all anyone is talking about.
5. The story keeps changing. Every single day this story has brought a new cliff-hanger. Bloodied cricket bats! Contamination of the scene! Testosterone! No wait, herbal remedies! Investigating officer accused of attempted murder! It’s the narrative gift that keeps on giving.
6. But there’s no resolution. We like closure so that we can move on. But until the final verdict in this trial — and beyond — we’re unlikely to get that. The only thing we can be sure of is that we will never really know what happened. Forensics don’t tell all of the story, and memory is notoriously faulty. The truth of what happened has been lost forever, but the fantasy that we may know it will continue to tantalise us.
7. It’s happening in real time. Thanks to Twitter, you can follow blow-by-blow accounts of courtroom proceedings. Journalists who have been tweeting from the trial have seen their follower numbers grow hugely. The collective productivity of the country has nosedived this week, judging by the number of people who’ve confessed to being glued to their timelines.
8. It matters because it doesn’t. In the greater scheme of things, this case isn’t very important. Though it will stand stark and terrible in the lives of those directly involved, it isn’t going to make any real difference to the lives of most South Africans. It is one tragedy among many. If we’re so remorselessly intrigued by this hearing, if we pay attention at the expense of everything else, it’s also partly because we don’t want to know the state of the nation in the first place.
If only Matlock could smile his way through proceedings, ending it all in 45 minutes and ad breaks. Sadly, this looks set to distract us for much, much longer than that.