Can South Africa's justice system handle the Oscar Pistorius case?

The lead detective in the Oscar Pistorius murder case has been replaced. But can the South African police force recover from the mistakes made to date?

AP Photo/Themba Hadebe
Detective Hilton Botha sits inside the court witness box during the Oscar Pistorius bail hearing in Pretoria, South Africa. Botha is off the case, and now faces attempted murder charges himself over a 2011 shooting, police said Thursday, Feb. 21, 2013,

The lead investigator in the Oscar Pistorius murder case has been replaced. Why? Detective Hilton Botha himself now faces charges of attempted murder.

Yes, the detective investigating the murder of Reeve Steenkamp had attempted murder charges reinstated on Feb. 4 – some 10 days before the Pistorius case. Botha and two other police officers face seven counts of attempted murder in a 2011 shooting incident. The drunk policemen allegedly fired at a minibus they were trying to stop.

In an attempt to rebound from this setback, South Africa's National Police Commission Riah Phiyega said Thursday that a team of "highly skilled and experienced' detectives will now take over the investigation. South African Olympic runner Pistorius faces a premeditated murder charge for the killing of his girlfriend Reeva SteenKamp.

But this sudden removal of Botha, in addition to his testimony during three days of bail hearings, is raising questions not only about the quality of the prosecution's case but the effectiveness of South Africa's judicial system.

During Thursday's bail hearing, Pistorius's defense attorney Barry Roux cast doubt on the version of events given by Botha on previous days.  Prosecutors claimed Steenkamp had fled to the bathroom after a fight, fearing an enraged Pistorius. But Pistorius's version of events was that she had gone to the bathroom to relieve herself, and he didn't know it was her behind the door when he fired the gun four times. He thought she was an intruder.

On Thursday, Botha conceded that the angle of the shots was consistent with Pistorius's version of events.

As The Guardian live blog on the case reported:

"Defence lawyer Barry Roux said that Steenkamp’s bladder was empty when she died, indicating she had indeed got up to use the toilet. Usually at 3am you would not find an empty bladder, Roux said. Roux said Steenkamp’s autopsy showed no sign of defensive wounds or an assault. Botha said that was correct. Roux said that Steenkamp might have locked the toilet door to protect herself when she heard Pistorius shouting that there was a burglar. And he said that Botha could not say for sure that the shots were fired from 1.5m away and at the angle he described – and Botha admitted he couldn’t be sure about that. Roux also criticised Botha’s handling of the crime scene, saying the police had failed to find a bullet cartridge and that Botha had walked in to the house without protective feet covers on, contaminating the scene."

And there were other mistakes that came to light on Wednesday, as The Christian Science Monitor reported, "Police ... left a 9 mm slug from the barrage that killed Reeva Steenkamp inside a toilet and lost track of illegal ammunition found inside the house."

"Unfortunately there are too many instances of poor police work," Gerhard Kemp, a professor of criminal law at the University of Stellenbosch, told Reuters. "It's absolutely not CSI. It's a totally different world."

On Thursday, Desmond Nair, the magistrate in charge of the bail hearing, also raised questions about the competence of Botha's work, asking why the police hadn't acquired Steenkamp's phone records yet.

"Do you agree that [if] the deceased received SMSs or Phonecalls at 3 a.m., would it change the position of case?" the judge asked.

Pistorius's attroney, Roux pressed his advantage Thursday. "The poor quality of the evidence offered by investigative officer Botha exposed the disastrous shortcomings of the state's case," Roux said. "We cannot sit back and take comfort that he [Botha] is telling the truth."

Asked about Botha's court performance and handling of the investigation, National Police Commission Phiyega said South Africa's police force "can stand on its own" compared to others around the world, according to The Associated Press.

And Reuters reports:

With huge international media interest in the case against a global celebrity, many South Africans feel that apparent initial slip-ups by the police are hurting the country's image.

"Bring someone from outside to sort out this mess," said businessman Godfrey Baloyi. "The whole justice system needs an overhaul."

The bail hearing in Pretoria is scheduled to continue on Friday.

You've read  of  free articles. Subscribe to continue.
Real news can be honest, hopeful, credible, constructive.
What is the Monitor difference? Tackling the tough headlines – with humanity. Listening to sources – with respect. Seeing the story that others are missing by reporting what so often gets overlooked: the values that connect us. That’s Monitor reporting – news that changes how you see the world.

Dear Reader,

About a year ago, I happened upon this statement about the Monitor in the Harvard Business Review – under the charming heading of “do things that don’t interest you”:

“Many things that end up” being meaningful, writes social scientist Joseph Grenny, “have come from conference workshops, articles, or online videos that began as a chore and ended with an insight. My work in Kenya, for example, was heavily influenced by a Christian Science Monitor article I had forced myself to read 10 years earlier. Sometimes, we call things ‘boring’ simply because they lie outside the box we are currently in.”

If you were to come up with a punchline to a joke about the Monitor, that would probably be it. We’re seen as being global, fair, insightful, and perhaps a bit too earnest. We’re the bran muffin of journalism.

But you know what? We change lives. And I’m going to argue that we change lives precisely because we force open that too-small box that most human beings think they live in.

The Monitor is a peculiar little publication that’s hard for the world to figure out. We’re run by a church, but we’re not only for church members and we’re not about converting people. We’re known as being fair even as the world becomes as polarized as at any time since the newspaper’s founding in 1908.

We have a mission beyond circulation, we want to bridge divides. We’re about kicking down the door of thought everywhere and saying, “You are bigger and more capable than you realize. And we can prove it.”

If you’re looking for bran muffin journalism, you can subscribe to the Monitor for $15. You’ll get the Monitor Weekly magazine, the Monitor Daily email, and unlimited access to

QR Code to Can South Africa's justice system handle the Oscar Pistorius case?
Read this article in
QR Code to Subscription page
Start your subscription today