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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.