Imminently, the judge will deliver a verdict in the trial of Oscar Pistorius, the Paraolympian who shot his girlfriend, Reeva Steenkamp, dead at his home in Pretoria, South Africa, on Valentine’s Day in 2012.
Oscar Pistorius came into global limelight as a double leg amputee “Bladerunner” using carbon-fiber prosthetics. Pistorius set records – in 2011the first double leg amputee to win an able-bodied world track medal; in 2012 the irst double leg amputee to participate in the Olympics; first double leg amputee to win gold medals; world record in 200 metres race and silver in the final. He became rich and famous. He was entitled to and desired by models such as Steenkamp who said severally that she felt lucky to have Pistorius as “my boo”.
The year 2012 that marked Pistorius rise to glory was the year of his infamous descent. He was just 26 years old.
The many questions of what happened and how were answered in the court during a live broadcast trial which lasted almost one year from Pistorius first court appearance on August 19 2012. At the end, South Africa remained divided as it was at the beginningof the trial. For one goup, Pistorius is a violent, angry, troubled,dangerous, armed, man with a difficult past who is unable to cope with fame and is disrespectful of women. To the other group, he is an unfortunate victim of nature, disadvantaged, sensitive, scared person who is forced by South Africa’s crime-ridden society to seek heightened security for personal protection.
If you accept the view of the first group, Judge Masipa’s verdict is clear – the prosecutor’s charge of premeditated murder stands and Pistorius deserves a life sentence which is 25 years imprisonment. Mitigation may come through pleading of extraordinary circumstance such as first offender, disability of Pistorius, value to society.
If you accept the second view, then Pistorius could be guilty of culpable homicide even if he mistakenly fired at the closed door of his bathroom thinking that there was an intruder. It will be difficult to prove that, as a trained owner of many guns and when to use them, he had exercised due caution.
Guns and violence are at the core of the unfortunate incident. The verdict will not bring back dead Steenkamp whose family doted on so much. Neither will any judgment revive the descending stardom of Pistorius. There will be losers and losers only.
During a first visit to South Africa in 1993 this writer saw a sign at a domestic airport stating “Firearms check off”. A South African gentleman explained to the ignorant visitor that before one boarded an aircraft one’s firearms should be deposited and then collected at the landing airport. The ignorant visitor wondered silently why would anyone carry firearms on an airplane, except for security personnel.
In later years, after living in the country for a while, many things became clearer. In 2001, at one of the usual casual exchanges during a transaction, an officer at a bank in Pretoria explained that she had noticed some movement around her compound the previous afternoon. “I thought that some bastards were trying to come in. I quickly brought out my rifle and stood by the window. There was no further movement. I was ready to blow out any bastard’s brains,” she explained.
In 2002, a young, brilliant computer specialist who was a colleague’s brother, was out strolling with friends in his township of Atteridgeville, near Pretoria, on an afternoon. They were accosted by some boys who demanded their cell phones. The friends handed over theirs but the computer specialist chose to plead with them saying that his phone was rather precious. In a twinkle of an eye a gun was pointed at him and two bullets went into his head. He died before he could reach the hospital.
A neighbor in Pretoria lived with his wife and little daughter in 2002. He was a fairly well to do person living in a comfortable home and having a good life from all indications. The only noticeable thing was that he looked moody from time to time. But who does not have moods anyway. Suddenly one day the wife came over to announce that her husband had shot himself dead with one of his numerous guns.
In 2010, a young lady clerk in an international organization in Johannesburg sought counseling to help her cope with trauma of divorce that she was going through. In her explanation of the urgency of the service, she explained: “Two days ago I got so angry that I decided that it was best to kill my husband. I went into a fuel station and asked an attendant to get me a gun. I paid 250 Rands (about 25 US dollars in today’s exchange rate) and collected a pistol the second day. The attendant showed me how to use it. But when I told my sister my plan, she talked me out of it and took the gun away from me.”
By all indications, South Africa is not one of the leading countries in gun ownership and deaths from guns. Data from Gun Policy Organisation in South Africa shows that South Africa ranks 17 out of 178 countries in privately owned gun. In rate of privately owned firearms per 100 population, out of 178 countries, South Africa ranks 50. In comparison, USA has less than 5% of the world’s population, but leads with 35–50 per cent of the world’s civilian-owned guns.
The estimated total number of guns (both licit and illicit) held by civilians in South Africa is 3.4 million. Nigeria with a population of about 150 million, which is three times that of South Africa, has 2 million guns held by civilians.
A report in TIME magazine in March 2013 says that 2,000 guns are stolen from legal owners in South Africa every month. This in part accounts for the cheap availability of firearms on the streets. 1
According to the United Nations Office of Drug and Crime (UNODC) the worst firearm murder rates are Honduras, El Salvador and Jamaica. • Puerto Rico tops the world’s table for firearms murders as a percentage of all homicides – 94.8%. It’s followed by Sierra Leone in Africa and Saint Kitts and Nevis in the Caribbean. South Africa is number 17 whilst USA is number 4. In total gun homicides, Brazil comes first, followed by Colombia, Mexico, Venezuela, USA and then South Africa.
South Africa’s stringent firearms control and regulation policy is respected and acknowledged as being fairly effective by gun advocates and critics.
A combination of the apartheid (separation) policy and its attendant exclusion, deep distrust among racial groups, wide economic inequality, and historical, continuing violence can account for easy uses of guns.
Pistorius despite living a gated community with electric fenced walls and security guards did not feel safe. He slept with his pistol under his bed and a rifle at his window and in 2013 he applied for licenses for six more guns.
There are no simple answers to the myriad of issues that confront the new South Africa. Distrust of system and resort to violence to resolve problems is a common characteristic. It is seen in the reaction of the lady banker who picked up her gun at the slightest movement of flowers in her garden because she felt vulnerable. The potential divorcee who wanted to settle scores with her husband with bullets rather than through the law court, and the young IT specialist who was shot for his cell phone are agent and victim respectively of violence.
The unflappable Judge Thokozile Matilda Masipa, a former journalist, had two court assessors to advise her through the proceedings. Now South Africa waits in dead silence for Masipa’s verdict. Beyond the judgment, the country will have to grapple with defining its identity within a rainbow of tough historical legacy and socio-economic challenges.
• Bunmi Makinwa is a communication for leadership entrepreneur based in South Africa and Nigeria. He was Africa Regional Director of United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA).