Time magazine has put Oscar Pistorius on the cover of this week’s issue. While we realize this is national news and thus warrants coverage we can’t help but feel as though we are doing what we always do when something horrible happens, we turn a murderer into a celebrity. We did it with Casey Anthony, Jodi Arias, Adam Lanza, Charles Manson, John Wayne Gacy and many others. Perhaps we just want to understand the worst aspects of humanity but the way we vilify or vindicate someone in the media only achieves one thing and that’s notoriety.
Celebrities aren’t regular people, they are symbols. We know so little about them that they become a mere image or representation of certain attitudes or traits. Jennifer Lawrence is down to earth, Zooey Deschanel is quirky and Beyonce is fierce. Celebrity and notoriety dehumanizes, it eliminates every nuance, every detail and blurs reality.
The Time’s tagline reads, “Man. Superman. Gunman.” The article uses Oscar Pistorius as a symbol for the extreme violence that occurs in South Africa. What exactly is wrong with treating a Oscar Pistorius as a poster child for South African violence? Much like any other celebrity-symbol this removes the context and history needed to understand what’s happening in South Africa or better yet, what went on between Oscar Pistorius and Reeva Steenkamp.
The nature of this case is interesting not because Pistorius did in fact, murder his girlfriend with three gun shots through the door of his bathroom. What will ultimately decide how he is punished is whether or not this act was premeditated and he has a reasonable defense only because South Africa is plagued with violence and home intruders.
The Apartheid ended only nineteen years ago, meaning the separation of White and Black South Africans prevailed until just nineteen years ago. The country is still riddled with racial conflict, fears and above all else violence catalyzed by poverty, disenfranchisement and a government rampant with corruption. Gun violence, sexual assault and home intruders for the South African is just Tuesday.
According to Time, ” In 2011 the U.N. Office for Drugs and Crime found that South Africa had the 10th highest murder rate in the world. Rape is endemic. Two separate surveys of the rural Eastern Cape found that 27.6% of men admitted to being rapists and 46.3% of victims were under 16, 22.9% under 11 and 9.4% under 6–figures that accorded with the high proportion of attacks that occurred within families . . . Unable to rely on the state, South Africans are forced to cope with crime essentially on their own–and over time, that has shaped the nation. Policing is largely a private concern. In 2011, South Africa’s private security industry employed 411,000 people, more than double the number of police officers. In the townships, vigilante beatings and killings are the norm.”
How do we talk about what Oscar Pistorius did without talking about the reality of South Africa? I am not sure that we can. However Time’s presentation of Pistorius as a duel symbol is problematic. Prior to the incident he was a cultural symbol for struggle, for overcoming adversity and being one of the best. The man, dealing with an extreme disability, became a champion of the one sport he “wasn’t supposed” to even be allowed to compete in.
“In South Africa, Pistorius’ achievements resonated deepest of all. In a nation obsessed by disadvantage, he was the ultimate meritocrat, a runner with no legs who ignored the accidents of his birth to compete against the best.”
For the disenfranchised, for the marginalized, White or Black, it’s a story of hope against all odds. It’s the national mythology the country would like to tell itself: that it can overcome even the worst of circumstances. Then Time describes Pistorius as another symbol in the aftermath of his girlfriend, Reeva Steenkamp’s murder, as a symbol for the extreme violence that has become common in South Africa.
“Steenkamp was the tragic victim of a racially splintered society in which fear and distrust are so pervasive that citizens shoot first and ask questions later. And then there was the murder scene itself, a locked bathroom within a fortified mansion in an elite enclave surrounded by barbed wire, in a country where more than half the population earns less than $65 a month and killings are now so common that they reach the highest echelons of society and celebrity.”
Gun violence and violence against women is so common that it can affect even its cultural elite. That’s what Time wants Pistorius to represent.
Pistorius claims to have believed an intruder was in his bathroom after he had woken up. He knew his girlfriend was in the house. He heard a noise in the bathroom and shot through the door four times with the gun he kept under his pillow.
Three of the shots hit his girlfriend who had been in the bathroom. The details of Pistorius’ story do not add up. The prosecutor believes his actions suggest that this was a premeditated murder because evidence indicates that Pistorius took the time to put on his prosthetic legs after waking up and because neighbors heard arguing and a woman screaming before the gunshots had been fired.
As outsiders we can’t be sure of what happened. My point is merely that if we want to understand what is going on in South Africa we have to look closely at South Africa. If we want to understand Oscar Pistorius then we have to look closely at him. We cannot use one man as a symbol for gun violence, that kind of mythology deflects from the facts and details which are the only things we have to distinguish the truth from media frenzy.
We can’t lump each and every murder, hundreds of years of history, and the details of one case (or a million) into the life of one man. What is there to learn from that? That bad things happen in some countries? That is not enough to resolve this case. That is not enough to resolve a culture of violence.
Oscar’s motives to kill may have been personal, individual, unique or they may have been the symptom of an unsafe, conflicted culture but to turn these circumstances into soundbites, celebrities, covers or empty symbols does no victim justice.