A Pistorius Obsession: The Contagion of Violence

I am the bullet in the chamber.  Just do it.

— Nike sports advertisement featuring Oscar Pistorius

It remains to be seen whether this will become South Africa’s O.J. Simpson trial, with its lashings of blood lust voyeurism that finds form in evidence, exposures, suggestions and innuendo.  Even before the trial proceedings have formerly begun, there is enough material to fill an entire court record.  But the alleged murder of Reeva Steenkamp by the paralympian Oscar Pistorius is not something that will be left alone. More than bullets were fired the day the model was killed.

The accused and the alleged murder of his fiancé, whom he allegedly shot suspecting an intruder, has fed an insatiable appetite for public consumption and media frenzy.  Pistorius is no longer an accused so much as a freak being, a cipher for anxiety and sanguinary lust.  He is, in fact, capable of anything, and shooting Steenkamp may end up being the least of it, an act undertaken as a violent, anti-social impulse in a violent, anti-social community. If that be the song of the land, then sing it.

Pistorius became talismanic as an athlete, a meritocrat of sorts.  Clare Forrester, writing in the Jamaica Observer (February 27), gives a sense of that levelling, and ultimately transcending power.  “Here was the supreme poster child for courage and determination, whom Grenada’s 400 metres gold medallist at the London 2012 Olympics Kirani James described as ‘special’ although he had finished last.”  But in so doing, he did not merely become the man who triumphed on the field but off it. He became more than the model athlete, but a model person, the odds in the lottery of life overcome with mind numbing determination.

The two facets – sport and character –  are often not the same, but the modern, fuzzy version of sport, with its advertising contracts and ubiquitous pasting of a sport’s figure’s identity through multimedia suggests a conflation.  A good sports personality is a good man or woman, and the exposure of this association as fatuous is not taken well by sponsors and fans alike.  The sponsors behind the Pistorius brand have slipped away, treating the athlete as the leper from the sports world.

From here on in, Pistorius can do no right. He has broken some unspoken social contract.  He has become unstuck in a nightmarish morality tale, unleashing interpretations like abundant pus from a boil.  The Daily Mail, the UK’s top muck machine after the tit parading The Sun, reported that a herbal remedy in tablet form was found in the bedroom of the accused containing 23 ingredients, among them “pig testicles, pig heart, pig embryo and pig adrenal gland, cortisone, ginseng and other botanicals.”  The QMI Agency ran with the headline, “Substance found in Oscar Pistorius home contained pig testicles.” Pistorius here is suggestively half-human, ingesting substances that would boost performance, transforming him into a sexually rapacious creature.

The cover of Time Magazine brings this transformation in full.  From “man to superman to gunman” it suggests, showing a less than human Pistorius, legs absent yet entire capable, a menacingly strong torso, a monstrosity that may kill, necessarily or otherwise.  The athlete would not be out of place in Greek mythology, a centaur, a lapinth perhaps chiselled on a metope of the Parthenon and then carted off to the British Museum.  This is the true mythologising of violence, and Time does its best, through the piece by Alex Perry, to draw out the figures of rape and murder in South Africa.

Two separate surveys of the rural Eastern Cape are cited, revealing that 27.6 percent of men surveyed admitted to being rapists, with 46.3 percent of victims being under 16.  “What really distinguishes South Africa from its peers in this league of violence is not how the violence rises with inequality nor its sexual nature – both typical of place with high crime – but its pervasiveness and persistence.”  This is South Africa as a sick patient, one howling for help, but like Pistorious, a centaur run wild, a society exceptional for its violent proclivities.

Another suggestion in the Pistorius affair, pitches Jina Moore in The Atlantic (March 1), seems much like a case of domestic violence with its accompanying apologetics.  For Moore, this is less cultural than individual.  It’s the man’s problem, and violence is less to be found in a milieu than it is to be found in Homo sapiens, or at least this specimen.  Where, she complains, was the domestic violence specialist in Perry’s story?

The other side to the leitmotif of violence lies in defence, the home as a vicious, internalised frontier.  “Nothing like getting home to hear the washing machine on and thinking it’s an intruder to go into full combat recon mode into the pantry,” came a post from Pistorius on Twitter in November.  The Afrikaners find themselves in electrified gated communities conducting a war with the natives which has never stopped. Fitting then, that the killing should happen against one of the same community, notably soon after the victim Steenkamp would tweet that she “woke up in a happy safe home this morning.  Not everyone did.  Speak out against the rape of individuals.”  (This tweet, incidentally, riles Moore, who considers it the myopic twaddle of a confused individual ignorant of sexual assault.)

This is a race on the run, and the troubles, along with the assortment of suggestions over where the killing fits in the South African landscape, keep growing.

Binoy Kampmark was a Commonwealth Scholar at Selwyn College, Cambridge. He lectures at RMIT University, Melbourne. Email: bkampmark@gmail.com. Read other articles by Binoy.