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As the saga of Oscar Pistorius’ fall from grace continues to play out in South Africa, there seem to be new and strange developments at every turn.
The judge who granted him bail now has a personal tragedy of his own. His first cousin allegedly poisoned her sons, ages 12 and 17, then killed herself over the weekend in Johannesburg. The lead investigator, Hilton Botha, was yanked off the case during the bail hearing as a result of re-instated attempted murder charges against him.
Then there is Pistorius’ older brother, Carl, who is reportedly facing a culpable homicide charge pertaining to the 2008 vehicular death of a motorcyclist. The five-year-old charge was dropped then recently reinstated.
Meanwhile Pistorius is currently out on bail, reportedly living in lavish comfort at his uncle Arnold Pistorius’ hilltop home in an affluent part of Pretoria after being charged with premediated murder in the shooting death of Reeva Steenkamp, his girlfriend, on Valentine’s Day.
Steenkamp was a 29-year-old model, stenographer and reality star, but is now almost forgotten by the media as we all focus on the 26-year-old double amputee’s innocence or guilt. Many are grappling with believing that the Olympic hero could purposefully shoot his beautiful girlfriend four times through a bathroom door.
But what if he was a black Sotuh African—would media coverage be different? Would there be more attention given to the wave of violence against women that exists in his country? Would media organizations dig deeper into Pistorius’ life instead of doing documentary-like reports on his heroic rise to Olympic fame? Would reporters look harder at South Africa’s justice system and the way blacks accused are treated as opposed to whites? Would reporters consider his short temper that many are now downplaying?
I read a compelling article where the author explored that country’s complicit climate of crimes against women and the imbalance that still exists racially long after apartheid was abolished. The situation is not unlike the US after our version of “apartheid” legally ended with the passing of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. South Africa has a history of deeply entrenched bias in their penal system, and many pointed to him getting special treatment from the start.
If he was black, would he have been held in a jail cell at the police precinct instead of the customary prison stay? Would he have even gotten bail? Would there be such a monumental screw-up on the prosecution’s part with Detective Botha? Would there be more scrutiny into the same Botha's investigation into a former lover of Pistorius who accused him of abuse, but later reportedly recanted or was found to be lying about her injuries?
The dangerous remnants of race disparity which permeate every aspect of life socially, politically, judicially and professionally play a pivotal role in how the media covers these kinds of crimes and South Africa seems startlingly similar to the US.
We are oftentimes blinded by color or ethnicity, success, good looks, fame and power. Oscar Pistorius possesses most all on that list. Considering the factors in play -- a white male with European good looks, heroic, rich, famous with an added sympathetic part in his disability -- most cannot see him as a deep, dark villain in this tragic story. Even in fiction, black represents the villain while white always portrays the good, for the symbolism of color has long been psychologically embedded in our society.
Blade Runner is now in the sprint of his life, and his public relations team is making sure we see the most favorable side of him. His is charged with murdering his girlfriend of four months and his “team” is hard at work spinning public opinion. Though a judge rather than a jury decides guilt or innocence, his reputation is being protected at all costs and his family is sparing no expense at hiring the best. This best comes in the form of Stuart Higgins, the veteran British celebrity newspaper editor and spin-master, and he is reportedly just part of the PR team.
Was the memorial service held by Pistorius for Steenkamp Tuesday part of that spin? It is not very often—or maybe I should say, it is unheard of—for the accused to hold a memorial for the person he or she is charged with murdering.
Oscar and Reeva made a striking couple. He, the gladiator athlete who overcame an incredible physical disability to reach the 2012 London Olympics and she, a stunning blond where beauty and brains collided. She was not only a model and budding reality television star, but also a law graduate. The beautiful couple and the almost tragic Shakespearian quality to the end of their romance makes for even more hypnotizing coverage.
If he was a black man accused of murdering the stunning blonde, what would the coverage look like in South Africa? We had our version in the O.J. and Nicole Simpson trial, and the media had O.J. guilty long before the trial even started.
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