Dani Garavelli: Pistorius fall-out will linger on

In the media frenzy that has surrounded 'the case of Oscar Pistorius' the focus has so often been on the Olympic athlete's frailties and fears ' not on his victim, Reeva Steenkamp. Photograph: AP
In the media frenzy that has surrounded 'the case of Oscar Pistorius' the focus has so often been on the Olympic athlete's frailties and fears ' not on his victim, Reeva Steenkamp. Photograph: AP
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NOT since OJ Simpson was cleared of murdering his ex-wife Nicole Brown Simpson back in 1995 did the high-profile trial of a celebrity leave such a bad taste in the mouth.

Oscar Pistorius may have been convicted of the culpable homicide of his girlfriend Reeva Steenkamp at a jury-less hearing in Johannesburg earlier this year, but, as he took centre stage, sobbing and vomiting in the dock and talking about how he was convinced she was a burglar, it was all about his vulnerability, his fear.

Though Steenkamp is said to have cowered in the locked toilet cubicle in the bathroom of his home as he shot her four times through its door, she was somehow written out of the story, as if her life was of little consequence compared with the losses he had suffered by being accused and dragged through the mire.

The judge, Thokozile Masipa, gave her verdict in good faith, but, by failing to convict him of murder, she sent a message out: that a woman could die alone with her boyfriend in a hail of bullets and no-one would be expected to pay the price. It was a message that was reinforced by the leniency of Pistorius’s subsequent treatment: he served just one year of his five-year sentence before being released to spend the rest of the term under house arrest.

That’s without even touching on the racial issue. As South African commentators, such as the journalist Margie Orford, have pointed out, Pictorius’s defence – that he fired at Steenkamp because he mistook her for an intruder – relied on stereotypes of the “b Dani Garavelli lack peril”. Only if you buy into the idea of the white man constantly preyed upon by the black could you be convinced that this athlete – who overcame profound disabilities to achieve Olympic glory – was so scared that he slept with a gun under his pillow and, on hearing noises in the night, failed to check whether or not his girlfriend was still in bed before pulling the trigger multiple times.

Several years after OJ Simpson’s acquittal, he was found liable for wrongful death in a civil case brought by the families of Nicole Brown Simpson and her friend Ronald Goldman, who was fatally stabbed alongside her. OJ Simpson was ordered to pay £33.5m in damages, so some form of justice was meted out.

Last week, Steenkamp’s family were also able to gain a degree of closure when the verdict in the Pistorius case was overturned. The Supreme Court of Appeal judge, Justice Eric Leach, ruled that Masipa did not correctly apply the rule of “dolus eventualis” – the rule that says an offender is guilty of murder if he can foresee the possibility that his actions might cause death – and that Pistorius ought to have known someone could be killed when he fired his volley of shots regardless of the identity of his intended target.

In terms of restoring Steenkamp to the centre of the case, this was of limited value, though Leach did insist on referring to her as Reeva whenever it was important to stress her identity. Because the judgment didn’t hang on Pistorius’s defence – that he did not know he was shooting Steenkamp –there was no need to re-examine the athlete’s history of aggression or the text in which she said she was scared of what he might do to her. There was no need either to re-interrogate some of the less credible aspects of his story: the fact that Steenkamp – who had apparently just got up to use the toilet – had taken her mobile phone in with her, or Pistorius’s contention that she didn’t cry out to tell him it was her – not a burglar – in the bathroom, though he was apparently screaming at the top of his voice.

Still, the recognition that shooting into a locked door is murder whoever is behind it, restores some confidence in a system that has taken a pounding. Since there is no provision in South African law for criminals to serve a sentence of more than five years under house arrest it looks as if Pistorius will be returned to jail, where he belongs.

The fall-out from the case will linger on; it has poured salt on many of South Africa’s festering wounds and demonstrated that even when a black woman, who has herself been a victim of violence and discrimination, is the judge, the prejudices that infect society can still impact on the result.

Meanwhile, the toll of women who are thought to have died at the hands of men continues to rise. In South Africa the statistics are horrific: it is estimated more than 40 per cent of women will be raped in their lifetime and every eight hours one is killed by a partner or former partner.

But it’s terrifying here too. Karen Ingala Smith, the head of nia, a London-based domestic and sexual abuse charity, keeps a UK tally: 144 in 2013, 149 in 2014, 111 up until November 21 this year. Most of the victims will remain anonymous to the public. Even more anonymous than Pistorius’s girlfriend because at least during the trial, when her death was being treated as incidental, some feminists were tweeting under the #hernamewasreevasteenkamp hashtag.

The new verdict is an improvement. But it doesn’t do much to enhance public understanding of how domestic violence works or to redress the way women are often obliterated after death as well as during it. Giving his ruling Judge Leach described the case as a “tragedy of Shakespearean proportions”. Maybe so, but – his fame aside – it’s not so very different to many other killings taking place across the world on a daily basis.