Reflecting on Mike van Graan’s analysis of the Oscar Pistorius case and the South African psyche

The multiply horrendous tragedy of Oscar Pistorius and Reeva Steenkamp. Where does one start? Despite myself, I’ve been gripped by the unfolding of this terrible case, along with the rest of the country, the rest of the world. I  knew who the guy was (more or less) before this story broke – that Olympic runner without legs. I didn’t know anything much more than that. I wish nothing had happened to focus my attention on him any more acutely than that. But this. This.

I totally understand that folks are getting uneasy with the deluge of attention this case is getting. I sort of understand the desire to make the hysteria go away. But whenever a story grips me, becomes an obsession – be it a novel, or a news story or an urban legend, or even just an individual – I can’t help a stronger desire to understand: what’s going on here? What does this story tap into? Why does this person capture the imagination as they do?

So I’ve been a bit stalkerish about it. (Along with 80,000 others) I’ve followed Barry Bateman (and about twenty other journalists) on Twitter. I’ve read the analysis that’s come out in the critical papers. I’ve gasped at the sensationalist non-analysis that’s come out in the tabloid press. And, so far, the most coherent and thought-provoking thing I’ve read has been Mike van Graan’s extraordinary article in the Guardian.

Van Graan notes the striking timing of the Pistorius-Steenkamp tragedy. It unfolded on the day of the State of the Nation address, and it more dramatically summed up the state of our nation than anything Zuma had to say that day. Almost every struggle, every contradiction, every subterranean war being battled out in everyday South African life, is encapsulated in this terrible story.

Van Graan looks into our obsession with sporting heroes, and their magical ability to unite us as a nation – and to rip us apart:

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.

He points out how the story casts a harsh light on our stressed and strained justice system, in some ways so forward-thinking, so progressive, and in other ways as riddled with inequalities and failings as our hideous national health system. For those who have the money to pay for it, legal advice is available, privately, for payment via EFT or credit card. For those who don’t, well:

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. 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.

Indeed. And although he doesn’t touch on it, there are echoes and parallels in there with our even more dysfunctional healthcare system. In a textbook I wrote last year, we had a glorious photo of the “Blade Runner” to illustrate the ways that modern medical technologies have changed, transformed and improved human life. Pistorius’ triumph is one assisted by cutting-edge technologies. And his access to those technologies is almost entirely determined by the lottery by which all South Africans either have or don’t have access to first-world privileges and lifestyle. And it’s not just a black-white thing. It’s not even a white-guilt thing. In post-Nkandla South Africa, it’s definitely not a blame-apartheid thing. It’s a bristling contradiction that even those of us who have lived here all our lives can never fully get to grips with. The bizarre mix of white guilt, middle class guilt, bleeding-heart liberalism, endemic racism, reverse racism, xenophobia, so-called black economic empowerment, the double-cross of fat cat corruption… it all simmers under the surface there.

But – most, most, most – what this story highlights, is the grim, vast and unknowable extent of violence in this country:

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 assaults 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.

Yes. Exactly that. The timing was triply grim, coming as it did in the wake of the Anene Booysen horror story that unfolded earlier this month. Gut-wrenchingly, Reeva Steenkamp had posted on Twitter only days earlier a comment acknowledging that violence, particularly its dangers for women, in South Africa – a country where men murdering their wives/partners is a daily occurrence. She tweeted: “I woke up in a happy safe home this morning. Not everyone did.”

Mike van Graan’s assertion – “We are all Oscar Pistorius. Oscar Pistorius is us.” – hits home darkly. This story taps into every fear, every contradiction that we live with every day in SA. We live in a world of such gruesome crime and violence, it’s entirely possible that someone could – mistakenly, tragically, in an eruption of fearful paranoia – kill the one they most love. We live in a world of such corruption and duplicity, it’s entirely possible that someone could – horrifyingly – dissemble and create a story to cover a more sinister murder plot.

The story forces us to consider all the possibilities, to consider a man as a more complex, nuanced, contradictory – and human –  creature than the usual distinctions can offer. The usual black/white distinctions –  hero/villain, good/evil, guilty/innocent – somehow blur into a scary, uncontrollable mess. The hero who overcame adversity and united a country in sporting triumph, he’s still there. And yet he has blood on his hands. Whether he intended it or not, she will never come back. Even if he’s innocent of premeditation, he’s guilty of a very, very stupid and terrible mistake. And if it was premeditated, does it make his earlier achievements and glories less heroic? Somehow not.

Watching the hysteria of the bail hearings unfold, all I see is a 26-year-old boy, distraught at having made an unbelievably massive, tragic, personal mess. In the epicentre of an unbelievably massive, tragic, national mess that both had nothing to do with him, and created him.


About Lisa

I live in South Africa with my husband and two small children, doing things, thinking about things and sometimes writing about them.
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