Pistorius verdict can only tell us so much about a deeply troubled culture of fear

Oscar Pistorius arrives at court. EPA/Kim Ludbrook

After six months of courtroom drama relayed around the world, Judge Thokozile Masipa has reached her verdict on Oscar Pistorius: not guilty of the murder of Reeva Steenkamp, but guilty of her “culpable homicide”. He was also found not guilty of possessing illegal ammunition and firing a gun through a car sunroof, but guilty of firing a gun in a restaurant.

On the crucial count of Steenkamp’s murder, the judge made it clear that she considered Pistorius’s conduct in the death of Steenkamp legally “negligent” – meaning he failed “to take the steps which he should reasonably have taken to guard against the consequence” of firing the shots that ultimately killed his girlfriend. But she also found that

it cannot be said that he foresaw that either the deceased or anyone else for that matter might be killed when he fired the shots at the toilet door.

And so, after 18 months of speculation, cranked up to fever pitch since South Africa’s “trial of the century” began on March 3, the Pistorius case is finally over. But the reality is that the verdict – just like the trial that went before it – has told us rather less about the man and his country than we might want to think.

In a wider sense, much to the chagrin of its rulers, South Africa has come to be seen as an almost uniquely violent society, the “crime capital of the world” in some of the more breathless accounts. Some reject this as a caricature, but few would argue that the 16,259 murders recorded by the police between April 2012 and March 2013 suggest a nation at peace with itself.

Meanwhile, sexual violence, and other forms of violence against women and girls are widely acknowledged as a major social problem, though their true extent is unknown.

Yet the death of Reeva Steenkamp is less consistent with the pattern of violent deaths in South Africa than we might imagine.

Fewer than one in seven South African murder victims are female; just under half of all murders involve men killing other men in the course of an argument or dispute. The harsh reality is that the typical victim of lethal violence in contemporary South Africa is male, poor, and black.

Then we have the trial. A dignified and enigmatic judge and two highly-skilled lawyers contributed much to the drama of the proceedings, but the tenacity and forensic skill with which Gerrie Nel and Barry Roux examined and cross-examined the witnesses – not to mention the resources they have been able to call on in making their cases – are far from the norm in South Africa.

The bungling that marred the handling of the crime scene and the early days of the investigation are more typical, showing off the parlous state of the detective functions of the South African Police Service.

Meanwhile, the bare-knuckle contest between prosecution and defence we have saw in the North Gauteng High Court bore little resemblance to the routine proceedings of the justice system, which relies on a high volume of guilty pleas and a high turnover of uncontested cases to keep its wheels turning.

Oscar Pistorius has experienced something close to the best justice that money can buy. Thousands of his fellow countrymen are much less fortunate.

Enigma and mystery

Pistorius will remain an enigma; whatever really made him fire the fatal shots through the bathroom door that night is as mysterious now as it was when the trial began.

In an adversarial justice system such as South Africa’s, a criminal court is no place to plumb the depths of the human psyche. The best (or worst) we can hope for in the inevitable commentary on the verdict is to see Pistorius crudely sketched as a bundle of demographic characteristics – young, male, white, and physically disabled – that in turn serve as a proxy explanation for his behaviour.

For some, his actions will be made intelligible by the simple virtue of his membership of a politically disenfranchised minority, and by the cruel loss of the physical capacity he needed to rise to a culturally prescribed ideal of manhood.

Living behind walls

Above all, one thing the trial illustrated very starkly is the power of fear. The apartment where the shooting took place is on the Silver Woods Country Estate. The developers’ website makes much of the high levels of security that the estate has to offer: with security measures designed by a specialist consultant using the latest technology, Silver Woods is “enclosed with a solid, electrified security wall with strict access control utilising the latest security measures throughout”.

Despite his client’s life inside these fortifications, advocate Barry Roux and his team played on the nightmares of millions of South Africans by suggesting Oscar Pistorius was a man living in fear – a man who might be excused for shooting an unknown and unseen intruder dead.

That defence drew from a deep well of popular anxiety: to summon up fears of the nameless infiltrator, who comes under cover of darkness to rob, rape and kill, was a very shrewd manoeuvre.

But it does not explain why anyone living on an estate as thoroughly fortified as Silver Woods would be so fearful. It may well be that Oscar Pistorius – who lived behind an electrified security wall and kept a 9mm handgun by the side of his bed, along with a stock of “ranger” bullets designed to cause maximum damage to human tissue – remained a deeply fearful man.

We know that the demand for security can become insatiable, and that walls and weapons can be reminders of our fears rather than sources of reassurance. We have been shown too that, in South Africa, fear is a plausible explanation for actions like those that led to Reeva Steenkamp’s death.

But the question of why this explanation should seem reasonable at all, much less immediately appealing to millions of South Africans, is deeper and more disturbing than many of those asked in court. Perhaps that unanswered question is the true legacy of the trial of Oscar Pistorius.

This article was updated on September 11 and 12 following the delivery of the verdict