JOHANNESBURG — Flying to South Africa to report on Oscar Pistorius, I went with an open mind about the night he shot and killed his girlfriend, not least because in competing at the London Olympics on prosthetic legs, Pistorius showed it isn’t wise to rush to judgment and that appearances can be deceiving.
Two weeks later, I return home to Europe no closer to knowing or really understanding exactly why Pistorius pulled the trigger of his 9 mm pistol in the early hours of Valentine’s Day.
I’m not convinced we’ll ever know for certain, given that Reeva Steenkamp, the only person other than him in the track star’s villa that night, is dead.
I wouldn’t bet on South African police furnishing all the answers. Not after watching scratchy footage of officers attaching a taxi driver by his wrists to the back of their police vehicle and dragging him down a street in a township east of Johannesburg. Mido Macia later died in a jail cell.
This was two weeks after Pistorius killed Steenkamp. The eight officers charged with murder for Macia’s death aren’t the same crack team working the Pistorius case, led by a veteran of the force described as South Africa’s “top detective” by the police commissioner.
Still, the videotaped brutalizing of Macia and missteps by the first chief investigator in the Pistorius shooting, who was subsequently replaced, did nothing to inspire confidence in the professionalism of the police.
Some here believe Pistorius’ legal and forensic team will concentrate in coming months on picking holes in police evidence and that the two sides might eventually reach a plea deal, avoiding a high-stakes court drama that would be South Africa’s equivalent of the “trial of the century” for O.J. Simpson, the former NFL star acquitted in 1995 in the Los Angeles slayings of his ex-wife, Nicole Brown Simpson, and her friend, Ronald Goldman.
Either way, the Pistorius of old is gone for good.
Watching the “Blade Runner” sprint at the London Olympics was so uplifting. The double-amputee runner could have been a metaphor for South Africa – damaged by its past but not despondent. But after making Olympic history, the star’s image took a beating. Pistorius was a poor loser and hypocrite at the London Paralympics when he moaned about the “unbelievably long” prosthetic legs of another amputee runner who beat him.
And the image shattered when he shot his telegenic 29-year-old girlfriend in his bathroom toilet and prosecutors charged him with murder.
Certainly, Pistorius still has much explaining to do. The “Blade Gunner” tag of newspaper headlines might prove indelible.
Pistorius’ account of what happened shifted some blame onto South Africa, with him saying that his fear of violent crime was a factor in the killing. Having been such a brilliant ambassador in London for the so-called “Rainbow Nation,” Pistorius painted his country as a sometimes frightening place in explaining the shooting.
“I am acutely aware of violent crime being committed by intruders,” he said in his affidavit to the magistrate who freed him on bail. “I have received death threats before. I have also been a victim of violence and of burglaries before. For that reason, I kept my firearm, a 9mm Parabellum, underneath my bed.”
Pistorius said he woke up in the early hours of Feb. 14 and heard noise in his bathroom toilet, which “filled me with horror and fear of an intruder.”
“I felt a sense of terror rushing over me,” Pistorius testified. “As I did not have my prosthetic legs on and felt extremely vulnerable, I knew I had to protect Reeva and myself.”
“I fired shots at the toilet door.”
Pistorius said he then found Steenkamp slumped inside the toilet and that later, “she died in my arms.”
Living in France, which had 743 murders in 2011, being shot is the last thing I worry about. Although police figures show homicide rates have come down significantly in South Africa, there are still 15,000 murders here a year. That is more than in the United States. With 311 million people compared to South Africa’s 51 million, the FBI counted 14,612 murders there in 2011.
A 2011 survey by the official statistics agency found that one third of South African families avoid going alone to parks and other open spaces because they fear crime, rising to 43 percent in Gauteng province that includes Johannesburg and the capital, Pretoria, where Pistorius lives.
Short of being able to interview Pistorius, who is said by his agent and his family to still be mourning Steenkamp, a shooting range seemed a good place to quiz other white South Africans about crime and why some arm themselves against it.
There I met Thomas Holder, who was shot in the left buttock and keeps a photo of the wound on his smartphone – a reminder of a terrifying night 16 months ago when armed thieves attacked his citrus and sugar cane farm near South Africa’s northeastern border with Mozambique.
The bullet made a dark hole on its way in, another on its way out, and an angry purple weal of bruising between the two.
Holder had gone outside at 11 p.m. to lock his car.
“Stupid of me,” he now says.
A sound alerted Holder to danger. He sprinted back to the house. As his wife slammed the door behind him, an attacker wedged his hand into the gap between door and frame.
The hand was holding a gun.
“I looked at the blue flame as he pulled the trigger,” Holder recalled. “I was glad it happened because it opened my eyes, opened my eyes that this is the reality of South Africa.”
Given the assault and his farm’s isolation, it isn’t hard to understand why Holder subsequently bought a pistol and taught himself and his two teenage daughters to shoot with it. On the range east of Pretoria, Holder and Ishah, his 13-year-old, looked handy with his .40-caliber handgun, firing at pretend attackers.
Pistorius’ house, on the other hand, is in a gated compound so secure that its website boasts of its “solid, electrified security wall, with strict access-control utilizing the latest security measures throughout the estate.”
South Africans who have firearms for self-defense like Holder and Pistorius aren’t unusual but are the minority.
In the official statistic agency’s survey, less than 5 percent of households, rising to 6.3 percent in Gauteng, carried weapons against crime. Police Minister Nkosinathi Emmanuel Mthethwa said two years ago that South Africa has 1.7 million registered firearm owners holding 2.9 million guns.
Does fear of crime really explain why Pistorius acted as he did?
Or are his lawyers using this as a keep-out-of-jail card, playing it up as a handy explanation for Steenkamp’s killing?
Certainly, South Africa didn’t pull the trigger. Pistorius did that. Although it is tempting to connect dots and assume that the shooting highlights South Africa’s supposed gun culture, its crime problems, its horrific violence targeting women and the teething problems of its still evolving post-apartheid democracy, it can also be argued that this case says little or nothing about contemporary South Africa but much about Pistorius.
“All that happened was that a famous gun-toting twit from Pretoria shot and killed his girlfriend. Period,” South African columnist Mondli Makhanya opined in the Sunday Times.
Arnold Pistorius, an uncle the athlete is staying with who has become the family spokesman, has said Steenkamp’s death “was a terrible accident” and that his nephew “never intended to harm her.”
But an accident is what happened to Seymore Coetsee, a professional hunter who managed a game lodge north of Pretoria.
When working on his washing machine, his pistol fell out of his waistband, hit the floor and went off, and “the bullet entered his stomach, exited through his back and ended up in the ceiling,” the lodge owner, Bryn Thomas, said by telephone. This was last month, a week before Coetsee was to marry. He died being transported by ambulance to a Pretoria hospital.
Can Pistorius’ account that he shot several times through a toilet door without knowing who was on the other side also be considered an accident?
Or was it stupid and negligent at best or, at worse, a story cooked-up to hide murder?
“Shooting through a closed door, you don’t know what the target is, where the target is,” said Adrian Rosslee, a firearms instructor and owner of the range where Holder, the farmer, was shooting.
“The logic fails me.”