Thursday – and likely Friday too – is Judgment Day in the Oscar Pistorius murder trial. It’s been almost 18 months in which the tale of the Olympic athlete who shot a young woman has reverberated around the globe. Like it or not, in terms of the pitch and scale of media attention devoted to it, there has never been a South African court case like it. There may never be again: a thought which many will take comfort from. REBECCA DAVIS takes a look back at how it all began.
Friday, February 14th 2013. It dawned bright and sunny in Cape Town, as they say in the classics. We always knew it was going to be a big news day. It was the annual State of the Nation address, colloquially known as SONA. In a country where politicians and sports stars are some of the only real “celebrities”, SONA is pretty much Oscars night for politicians.
(That’s “Oscars” as in “the Academy Awards”, to avoid confusion. At that stage we still didn’t know that Oscars night would be followed by Oscar’s year.)
Come late afternoon on SONA day, politicians from across the spectrum arrive at Cape Town’s Parliament. There they walk up a red carpet, blinged out in their finery, to take up their seats in the National Assembly. They are normally in high spirits, if sometimes made a little awkward by their fancy clothes. Even serious political journalists get to be a bit silly for a few hours, calling out requests to top-ranking government officials to pose for a photo or tell the world who made their outfit.
Media organisations tend to plough fairly major resources into coverage of SONA. There’s more to it than the red carpet, of course. There’s the minor aspect in which the President of South Africa lays out his plans for the year; his vision of where the country is going. After his address is done, when night has fallen, politicians spill out of the National Assembly to tell journalists what they thought of the speech.
As was the case at most media outlets, Daily Maverick staffers woke on February 14th ready to cover SONA as assiduously as possible. Ranjeni Munusamy, Greg Nicolson, Brooks Spector and I were all in Cape Town for the occasion, ready to go.
Early morning Twitter, however, had rumblings of a somewhat different story.
At 8.13am, the first email went out to the Daily Maverick editorial list.
“Have you seen this?” I wrote. “Oscar Pistorius allegedly shot dead his girlfriend this morning thinking she was a robber.” Accompanying the mail, a link to one of the first notifications in the news, carried by Afrikaans daily ‘Beeld’.
“Please be on it,” Daily Maverick editor Branko Brkic emailed me back. “We need to cover it, unfortunately.”
I sighed, because this was not part of the day’s plan. At 10am I was supposed to meet my colleagues to do some planning for our SONA coverage. I regretted bringing it to my editor’s attention.
For a start, few of us knew who Oscar Pistorius’s girlfriend was. The narrative now, I suspect spread largely by international news outlets, is that Reeva Steenkamp was a celebrity in her own right.
She wasn’t. Her career was certainly on the rise, but nowhere near the level of her becoming a well-known name. Her appearance as a contestant on reality TV show ‘Tropika Island of Treasure’ might have upped her profile, but at that stage the show had yet to be screened. Relatively few people would have been able to name Steenkamp as Pistorius’s girlfriend ahead of the shooting.
But journalists scrambling to uncover the identity of Pistorius’s girlfriend quickly latched on to the fact that the Sunday Times had run a fashion profile the previous weekend featuring Reeva Steenkamp, identifying her as the girlfriend of Oscar Pistorius. Heat Magazine had also recently published a photo of the two. It is a picture that has now been reproduced a million times around the world: Pistorius and Steenkamp posing together in evening wear at a sports awards evening. As we would learn from the trial, Pistorius’s invitation to Steenkamp for the night came just hours before the event.
“Have you seen the Heat pic of the girlfriend?” my phone pinged. “What a babe.” In death, Steenkamp would be objectified more comprehensively than ever in life.
Steenkamp’s Twitter account was quickly identified, and her poignant last tweet began to make the rounds. “What do you have up your sleeve for your love tomorrow??” Steenkamp wrote on February 13th. “#GetExcited #ValentinesDay”.
We whipped together a short report, and it went up on the Daily Maverick website just before 10am.
“Blade Runner In Shooting Incident”, the headline read: its vagueness testimony to the shortage of facts we had available at that time.
“It’s a story so shocking that many initially doubted whether it was true,” the body of the story began.
“But it appears that South Africa’s most high-profile disabled athlete, Oscar Pistorius, has been taken into custody following the shooting of his girlfriend at his Pretoria home this morning. Pistorius has reportedly claimed to police that he mistook the woman for an intruder when she entered his home, and consequently opened fire. It is reported that Pistorius shot her in her arm and head. She died on the scene.”
The story went on to note: “Tabloids have claimed that his girlfriend – who has yet to be named by police – was gaining entry to Pistorius’s house in order to surprise him for Valentine’s Day, though there is as yet no evidence to support this.”
EyeWitness News was reporting that Pistorius would appear in the Pretoria Magistrate’s Court later that day, but it wasn’t even clear what he would be charged with – if anything. We compared the case to that of the 2004 episode involving former Springbok Rudi ‘Vleis’ Visagie, who shot and killed his 19 year-old daughter at 5am on his smallholding after mistaking her for a car thief. Marle Visagie had allegedly been on her way to surprise her boyfriend for his birthday. The National Prosecuting Authority opted not to charge Visagie, saying he had suffered enough.
“It remains to be seen whether the same principle will apply to Pistorius,” our first story on the matter concluded. It was a horrible, terrible incident, but – shockingly in itself – it wasn’t unprecedented in South Africa.
Job done. I headed off to meet my colleagues for our SONA planning.
But as the morning progressed, the story started to take on a darker dimension. There were rumblings and rumours on social media. How did we know that Pistorius thought Steenkamp was a burglar? Where had that idea come from?
“Do you think maybe we should take story down??” I emailed my editor anxiously. “On Twitter there is a lot of anger being expressed at journos uncritically repeating belief that it was an intruder.”
“We need to do a story on Reeva,” Brkic replied. “Must admit I’m annoyed by the fact that everyone is talking about Oscar as though it is only HIS tragedy.”
I told him I would do my best, but the team was leaving for Parliament in 45 minutes, and after that everything would be pretty hectic. SONA, after all, was the obvious priority.
Then something happened, just after noon, which seemed to confirm that what we had on our hands was a story much bigger, and much more sinister, than anyone had initially imagined.
Police Spokeswoman Brigadier Denise Beukes gave a press conference outside the gates of Pistorius’s Silver Woods estate.
“The SA Police Service were just as surprised this morning to hear on the radio that allegations had been made that the deceased had been perceived to be a burglar,” Beukes said. “We were very surprised and those allegations did not come from us.”
It was enough to make me change my tune instantly. In discussion with my colleagues, we agreed. There was every sign that this story would be bigger than SONA. It’s a regrettable state of affairs, but that’s the way it goes: World-Famous South African Athlete In Tragic Shooting Mistake would never make headlines the way that World-Famous South African Athlete Charged With Murder would.
By that stage Team Daily Maverick was already within Parliament, virtually in lockdown for SONA. All around us, broadcasters and news outlets were making similar decisions: redeploying resources, shifting focus from Parliament’s austere buildings to a Pretoria police cell and an upmarket suburban estate.
Even parliamentarians were talking about Pistorius, instead of SONA. My colleague Ranjeni and I cornered IFP MP Mario Ambrosini. “Hang him!” he exclaimed, in his trademark fiery manner. Ambrosini passed away last month; the man he wanted to see severely punished hears his fate tomorrow.
In the end, our first piece of analysis on the Pistorius case got written in Parliament’s media centre, while President Jacob Zuma droned out his plans for the nation on TV screens overhead. Some local broadcasters canned elaborate SONA plans because it seemed so evident that that the nation’s attention was elsewhere. It was the first occasion on which the Oscar Pistorius murder trial would derail news agendas. Welcome to the next 18 months. DM