THE BIG READ: From Madiba's miracle to Oscar's murder trial - Times LIVE
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THE BIG READ: From Madiba's miracle to Oscar's murder trial

Tim Butcher | 2013-02-25 00:37:12.0
The Oscar Pistorius case has South Africans talking about guns, the justice system, wealth - and whether they should believe in miracles

It has been a heartbreaking week for those who believe in miracles. Ever since Nelson Mandela strode so forgivingly to the close of his long walk to freedom in the early 1990s, modern South Africa has flirted almost recklessly with "the m-word".

The way white rule ended without the sort of civil war that blighted so many other parts of Africa was recognised, rightly in my view, as little short of a miracle. But from then on the term has been devalued through overuse.

The transformation of the ANC from a loose, untried muddle of occasional lefties, hotheads and radicals into a sober, market-orientated party of government, capable of stewarding the continent's most powerful economy, was heralded among the white-dominated business community as miraculous.

The victory of the supposedly underdog South African side in the 1995 rugby World Cup had headline writers and film-makers reaching again for the m-word.

Ever since, any stand-out South African success, whether in sport, entertainment or commerce, has been given the same glowing treatment. To have done well from humble South African beginnings must be a miracle, the narrative goes.

No surprise then at the title of a major documentary on the country's recent history, given its premiere recently: Miracle Rising.

But fewer believe in miracles than 10 days ago. The spectacular fall of Oscar Pistorius, national hero turned tearful murder suspect, has not just aroused intense international media interest. In South Africa it has brought about a wave of soul-searching: about trust in the police, the cult of celebrity, violent crime and gun control, and faith in the political dominance of Mandela's beloved ANC.

The announcement of bail for Pistorius also sparked debate about the unlevel playing field in a judicial system in which prisons are full of remand prisoners on lesser charges than murder, but who cannot afford a high-end defence team such as that retained by Pistorius. The success of the Pistorius team in securing bail for their client kicked every other story off the pitch.

President Jacob Zuma's annual State of the Nation speech was completely overshadowed by the public's obsession with Pistorius. With a flatlining economy and dipping confidence in the ANC government, such indifference feels very damaging.

Not uncoincidentally, former stalwart anti-apartheid campaigner Mamphela Ramphele broke cover to announce the creation of a new political movement, Agang, a name that I suggest you take note of. Such a key political realignment has served to amplify the challenge to the miracle mythology stemming from the Pistorius case.

For years Pistorius, 26, has been a household name in South Africa, where his fight against adversity had echoes of the country's struggle for equality. It was in London that the Pistorius brand - which is what he had become with multimillion-pound endorsements - went global.

So, when news broke that he had shot dead his girlfriend, model Reeva Steenkamp, interest was worldwide. Not since the helicopter-mounted camera followed OJ Simpson as he was pursued in his white Ford Bronco by the LA police has the unrolling case against a murder suspect been so meticulously followed in real time.

The Simpson case predated the internet but Pistorius's bail application has been put on trial by Twitter. Gobbets of material, sometimes fact, sometimes opinion, sometimes irrelevant froth, exploded out of the courtroom like popcorn from a hot pan of oil.

And into the cavernous, insatiable vacuum of international interest have been dragged issues too serious to be parsed in the staccato of 140-character, stream-of-consciousness, knee-jerk social media feeds.

Gun culture is one; the court heard that Pistorius owned at least one firearm and had applied for licences for six more. The internet has filled with ill-informed misrepresentations of a South Africa awash with guns. The facts tell a different story: 12 guns for every 100 people, compared with 31 in France, 45 in Switzerland and 88 in the US.

Police bungling has spawned more criticism after the first investigating officer, Hilton Botha, admitted contaminating the crime scene and other blunders.

It then turned out that Botha himself faces seven counts of attempted murder from a shooting two years ago. He has now been relieved of the case. But if crimes were solved only by perfect police officers then few crimes would be solved anywhere.

As a foreigner who chooses South Africa as a home in which to bring up his children, the Pistorius case underlines this important point: this is a work-in-progress country. The people are no more or less violent than anywhere else in the world, but the turbulence of their recent history does lead, unsurprisingly, to problems with crime, bungling police and celebrities who face enormous and potentially unmanageable pressure from newly acquired wealth and status.

South Africa has a very dynamic equilibrium, the equilibrium of a rugby ball balanced on its end. It wobbles dramatically when pushed. I love that sense of unpredictability and dynamism. But one thing it has taught me: don't believe in miracles. - ©The Daily Telegraph


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