Putting itself on trial

Those few days of cold and surprising rain have gone, thank goodness and now we have beginnings of the aloes in flower – always a gorgeous time each year which we should cherish.

Each month brings its own particular pleasure – so I am surprised that no one has yet produced a calendar of these seasonal treats. But then there may be many others who are simply unaware of this country’s extraordinary seasonal beauty.  

Less surprising, however, has been the reactions to the execution of Patrick Gabaakanye, the barking from one side of the opinion divide and the somewhat plaintiff pleas from the other. Retribution is not a particularly edifying argument.

Nor is the ease with which the system can cut short the legal rights of the condemned - which automatically reduces the validity of its case.

Personally, I oppose capital punishment for several reasons but I am also opposed to keeping a convicted killer in jail for perhaps 30 or 40 years. Neither can be the most sensible of solutions to a particularly intractable problem. Maybe a saner word will one day be able to come up with a saner solution.  But of course a saner world is precisely what   we lack.  In the last week, I have had the misfortune to see parts of the grotesque Pistorius televised saga. I have not been held captive by this miserable story in the past, nor have I been intrigued by the human drama involved. Instead, I have been sickened by it, appalled by the man’s addiction with guns, and his past reckless use of them, incredulous that anyone would go to bed at night with a gun and ammunition to hand, seemingly as a routine. I have also been incapable of understanding how any woman could enjoy, even tolerate, the companionship of a such a person.

The Oscar-Reeva tragedy has been sickening, gut wrenching.  But it has been a specifically South African tragedy. In what other country in the world, in what other society, could it happen that a man is unable to realise that the woman he supposedly loves is not next to him in bed but is in the bathroom, and believing that the noises coming from the bathroom are made by some phantom intruder who, unusually, has locked the door from the inside, he grabs his gun, already loaded and, without thinking about her, fires with the obvious intention of killing whoever or whatever was behind it? All this being played out in a secure, privileged building in a secure part of privileged Pretoria.

And then there is the trial. The lady has been killed so there has to be one. The sentence is deemed to be inadequate so there is a second, also televised. 

Was it murder or manslaughter? It seems not to be realised that the second degrading spectacle now has little to do with Oscar and Reeva, it is historical white South Africa, which has opted to put itself on public trial. The cast is almost wholly white, as is the audience, but it is the one, key exception, the black, female judge who, alone, irony on irony, blunders.

She comes to the wrong conclusion. It is murder not manslaughter and the sentence she gives is inappropriate. So there is in effect a second trial, the issue now being not him or her but simply, more or less. It is now an obsession.  The poor lady is dead and no one can benefit from the eventual, adjusted decision. It is pointless.  The issues are nevertheless re-worked and endlessly re-considered although the arguments have long ago lost purpose and justification. The court has become a degrading theatre where it is no longer Oscar who is again on trial and due to hear a different but now supposedly correct sentence. It is not just the two sad individuals who were so appallingly displayed on worldwide television, the one who killed and the father of the one who was killed, who were both described as broken.

It was, in fact, a broken South Africa which was on trial, happy to show itself to the world as such. Here was an entire legal industry deployed at vast cost to demonstrate on television its skills, its expertise and professionalism to determine not what the man had done – which was never in doubt, but what penalty he must pay. 

The entire, ludicrous, degrading legal spectacle was organised for that one end result with Pistorius hauled once again into the Coliseum to provide a spectacle for the absorbed millions.

Had this been a white on black tragedy or black on white, the scenario would have been entirely different.

As it was, this particular killing of white by white provides another marker, as with Mandela’s release and the anniversary of the Soweto uprising, of the ending, hopefully, of South Africa’s tortured history. Somehow, it has, if nothing else, provided an appropriate summation of that past.

Editor's Comment
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