Pistorius tragedy, characters, prove a never-ending soap opera in South Africa

One longtime columnist, Max du Preez, says the Pistorius drama is turning out to be a bigger shock for the nation than the release of Nelson Mandela. 

Themba Hadebe/AP
Olympic athlete, Oscar Pistorius, in court last week in Pretoria, South Africa, for his bail hearing charged with the shooting death of his girlfriend, Reeva Steenkamp, on Valentine's Day.

The Oscar Pistorius saga continues to zig and zag through South African Twitter feeds, townships, taxi driver chat, and posh suburban clubs like some monster rogue soap opera that no one can turn off.

The simplest aspects of the Pistorius celebrity crime are salacious enough to build a media bonfire: A hugely admired Olympian double amputee accused of shooting his model girlfriend, Reeva Steenkamp, on Valentine’s Day, in cold blood. Mr. Pistorius maintains the slaying was an accident.

Yet the story got additionally fueled almost from the moment police arrived at Pistorius's exclusive Silver Woods gated community by a crazy-quilt set of unexpected developments.

One after another, headlines and eccentricities have poured out: The investigating officer for the prosecution, Hilton Botha, was replaced since he faces unresolved attempted murder charges.

South Africans then got treated to the discovery that Pistorius’s brother, Carl, still faces charges of culpable homicide for a traffic accident in 2010 that left a woman dead.

Next, Pistorius’s aunt, Micki Pistorius, emerged as having worked as a top crime suspect profiler for the police, handling many murder cases. The Independent Online of South Africa reported that Ms. Pistorius, as a university lecturer, would habitually encircle herself with books to absorb their knowledge because “circles have magic powers.” She also claims to possess extrasensory perception. 

There’s even curiosity and head-shaking this week not just among cartoonists about the oddity of having a man named Oscar being the No. 1 story at a time of the Academy Awards, but also following Pistorius’s announcement that he will hold a private service for Ms. Steenkamp at his uncle’s Pretoria home.

Such details, coming packed into a crime involving one of the few national heroes that most South Africans can agree about in an otherwise complex nation, simply get amplified and hyped.

“From our view, South Africa hasn't had that many heroes to be proud of since Nelson Mandela. We're kind of desperate to hold onto every hero,” says Max du Preez, who founded and edited Vrye Weekblad, an anti-apartheid newspaper that uncovered death squads.

Mr. du Preez, who watched Nelson Mandela walk out of prison and has been a journalist for 25 years, still thinks the Pistorius trial is proving to be the nation’s biggest-ever story.

“Historically, that [Mandela] was more important but, in terms of citizen obsession, this is the biggest,” he says. “It's about the uniqueness of the man. He overcame his disability. He had the personality to match. He was humble, well spoken. It was such an inspiration.”

To be sure, the crime has brought an often gawking focus on South Africa from abroad, by reporters looking into the gun culture, post-apartheid crime, high rates of violence against women, and life among Afrikaner elites and their gated communities.

Even the bail set last Friday by South African judge Desmond Nair, some $113,000, seemed high by local standards, and caused some jaws to drop. The sum was announced after an hours-long reading of bail by Mr. Nair that some reporters described as a history of Roman and Dutch law.

In South Africa the Pistorius case, judging by radio call-ins, newspaper letters, and social media, appears to cut across racial lines.

 “There is an exhilaration and it cuts across race and class for a change,” says du Preez. “If you look at Twitter, ‘Black Twitter’ as they call it … Black Twitter is about Oscar and Reeva.”

Many South African columnists point out that many “facts” first reported about the case and the crime scene – such as a bloody cricket bat supposedly being found at the scene or Steenkamp’s head bludgeoned, now seem to be unfounded. They were not part of any prosecution case in the bail hearing.

 “We're not as bad as the British media … but nobody is as bad as the British tabloids,” du Preez adds. 

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