A country on trial


As the trial of Oscar Pistorius enters its fourth week with no end in sight, South Africa is being forced to confront some ugly realities, writes Laurie Claase, author of the book Pieces of the Puzzle — Oscar Pistorius and Reeva Steenkamp — Part 1: The Killing.

 A dead woman shot by her intimate partner with hollow-point bullets designed to inflict maximum damage. While Blade Runner Oscar Pistorius does not deny pulling the trigger, he would have the court believe that the killing is a tragic accident brought about by a justifiable fear of crime in South Africa.

The fate of Reeva Steenkamp is not an unusual one. In South Africa, a woman is killed by her partner every eight hours. However, these figures are dated, and most likely underestimated, as in over 20% of murders, no perpetrator was identified, or so found a 2009 study by the Medical Research Council.

What is unusual is that the man who killed Reeva Steenkamp was a global icon. And for that reason, among others, Pistorius’ trial has made South African history. For the first time, a trial is being broadcast via conventional and social media, almost in its entirety. This will set a precedent for the broadcast of future trials, ensuring that justice is literally seen to be done.

The constitutional principle of open justice is vital in this trial as we see unfolding evidence presented of police collusion, apparently designed to obfuscate what really happened that bloody Valentine’s Day in Pretoria.

In his opening statements to the court on day one of the trial, State Prosecutor Gerrie Nel read the admissions into the record. These are the points upon which both the prosecution and the defence agree. Nel introduced the crime scene photographs into the court record: “It’s not admitted that all the photographs in the series depict the scene as it appeared immediately after the shooting incident, as the scene was contaminated and/or disturbed and/or tampered with.”

Both the investigating officer, Hilton Botha, and the policeman who took charge of the crime scene, Schoombie van Rensburg, were senior officers. Van Rensburg was the station commander of Boschkop police station and Botha one of his most experienced murder and robbery detectives. They were apparently the first two policemen to enter Pistorius’ main bedroom and bathroom in the early hours of 14 February. However, this fact too is in contention as another policeman from Boschkop police station, a sergeant Sebetha, deposed that he was first on the scene. 

Van Rensburg admitted that no inventory was made of exhibits seized on the 14th and that he had destroyed his notes of the crime scene. Both Botha and Van Rensburg have since left the police force. Botha quit less than two weeks after he took the stand in Pistorius’ February 2013 bail hearing. Van Rensburg resigned in December 2013 and now ‘coaches sports’.

Gerrie Nel led Van Rensburg through the contentious crime scene photos on Day 9. Viewers retraced the police’s footsteps as they followed a trail of blood from the entrance into the house. Blood droplets spattered furniture, walls, stairs and railings as the policemen made their way to the first floor.

At the entrance to Pistorius’ bedroom, a baseball bat and an air rifle stand propped up next to a cabinet filled with sunglasses. The main bedroom door is damaged. A crack runs down one side to its base and there are abrasions above the handle. There is also a hole where a projectile penetrated the door. In the bail hearing there was no mention of this cartridge. Hilton Botha insisted only four cartridges were found, the one in the passage and three in the bathroom.

As one enters the bedroom there is a hi-fi system on which a box of watches sits. There is blood splatter on the boxes and on the watches. It seems two of these watches went missing while the house was secured as a crime scene.

The first cartridge shown is towards the end of the passage leading to the en-suite bathroom; the second is found inside the door of the bathroom and the third and fourth lie near the bath and basin.

A blood-smeared floor is littered with dislodged shards of wall tiles, fragments of wood and broken panels from the toilet door. A blood-smeared cricket bat lies next to a bloody towel. A cocked gun lies on a crumpled mat, which partly obscures a black cellphone. A woman’s red vanity case sits on top of the bath. Inside the bath are blood spatters and door splinters. On the side of the bath is a badly dented steel plate. Almost the entire top part of the toilet door is missing. 

The bathroom window is open, lending credence to the State’s ear witnesses, who testify to hearing sounds of a fight, a woman’s screams, a man’s screams; gun shots around 03h00 and more gun shots some minutes later. One witness testifies to seeing lights on in the house before these shots. Pistorius, in his affidavit, maintains that he only put the lights on after the shooting. The State asserts that the gunshots at 03h17 were fatal. What then were the first set of noises? A bullet through the bedroom
door, perhaps?

In a photo taken in the aftermath, the Blade Runner, much diminished, stands in stained shorts on his prosthetic legs. He is bare-chested, a bloody bicep obscuring the tattoo on his back: 

“I do not run like a man running aimlessly… I do not fight like a man beating the air. I execute each strike with intent. I beat my body and make it my slave…”

South African men, across the cultural and economic spectrum, are products of a society in which might is right, masculinity is about physical strength and women, as the ‘weaker sex’, are inherently inferior. Little has changed since the birth of our constitutional democracy in 1994. In fact, gender equality is slipping ever out of reach, if the spectacle of our nation’s leader is anything to go by: he of the multiple wives, and catchy theme tune: ‘Bring me my machine gun.’ We are a violent nation. We respect neither the law nor each other. And we like guns, booze and fast cars. It’s a lethal cocktail. 

Gareth Newham is the head of the crime and justice programme at the Institute of Security Studies. In an interview with the Saturday Star on 16 February 2013, Newham said that “… in more than half of murders, both victims and perpetrators were under the influence of alcohol; in domestic-related murders, the killing was often out of jealousy and/or as the result of an argument.”

Then, there’s the popular perception that money, influence and fame can buy justice – particularly if you are a sporting hero. Sports stars are idolised unquestioningly in this country, their mortal flaws airbrushed by fame, an adoring public blinded by reflected glory.

So can Oscar Pistorius get a fair trial, under the relentless media spotlight? He’s certainly getting the best defence money can buy. The rest of us are at the mercy of a flailing police force and an overcrowded court docket. The DA spokesperson on police, Diane Kohler Barnard, summed it up: “Out of every 1 000 crimes reported to police, only 300 reached court; of those only 90 cases were won.”

Ultimately, this most public of all trials compels South Africans to acknowledge our entrenched culture of violence and resolve to eradicate it without fear or favour. May that be Reeva Steenkamp’s lasting legacy.π

Laurie Claase


Gender-based violence in South Africa

According to an August 2012 study co-authored by Professor Rachel Jewkes of the South African Medical Research Council, in South Africa, a woman is killed by her partner every eight hours. A woman is raped every four minutes. Intimate partner violence is the leading cause of death of female murder victims. In 2009, 56% of female homicides were committed by an intimate partner – a current, ex- or rejected lover. However, these figures are most likely underestimated as in over 20% of murders, no perpetrator was identified, or so found a 2009 study by the Medical Research Council.

On 2 February, two weeks before Reeva Steenkamp was shot, 17-year-old Anene Booysen was reportedly gang-raped by seven men, disembowelled and left for dead in an alley in the impoverished community of Kleinbegin in the small Western Cape town of Bredasdorp.  Anene had dropped out of school aged 15 to help feed the family. Sometimes their daily meal was simply bread and water. On her death bed, Anene Booysen named ‘Zwai and his friends’ as her attackers. Police identified Zwai as 22-year-old Jonathan Davids. Davids’ background is all too familiar. His mother was murdered in 2000, according to the Mail and Guardian. He had never known his father and had no fixed address. He earned R1 500 a month selling flowers. Police said Davids had a previous conviction for theft and had three charges of assault against him; two by women. However, all three charges had been withdrawn. A witness told the court that Davids had been harassing Booysen at a pub on the night of her death, and police said Davids had scratch marks on his left arm and neck when he was arrested. Davids, however, protested his innocence. Nonetheless, he was denied bail. Three months later, Davids was released. The NPA had ‘insufficient evidence to secure a conviction’. One man remains in custody, charged with Anene’s rape and murder.

Anene’s killing provoked national outrage. On 9 February, the day of Anene Booysen’s funeral, Reeva Steenkamp tweeted the following observation: ‘I woke up in a happy safe home this morning. Not everyone did. Speak out against the rape of individuals in South Africa. RIP Anene Booysen,’ and posted a luridly coloured graphic of violence. Less than a week later, Reeva herself was dead, at the hands of the man she called her ‘boo’, prompting radio personality and author Eusebius McKaiser to draw the tragic conclusion that ‘… brutal violence against women is an equal-opportunity affliction in South Africa … A woman is safe in neither a shack nor a mansion.’ 

In the analysis and retrospection of grief following her friend’s slaying, Gina Myers said of Reeva Steenkamp:

‘It’s ironic because she wanted to be famous for the right reasons. Reeva had a big voice and a big heart with big dreams. I feel like her voice is the loudest it has ever been.’ 


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