Oscar Pistorius learns his fate as soon as Thursday

On Thursday, South African Judge Thokozile Masipa reads out her verdict in Oscar Pistorius's murder trial. But is South Africa also on trial? Margaret Evans reports.

Judge to announce her verdict in high-profile murder trial

It’s back.

The Oscar Pistorius trial. After a brief respite over the summer, legal pundits are sharpening their predictions and their pithy comments.  News channels are putting together their "best of" reels from the six-month long trial, ahead of a verdict expected by the end of the week.

The comparisons are back too. Some 100 million people watched the verdict in that other trial of the century, the O.J. Simpson trial in 1995.

Media watchers expect even more viewers to tune in when the presiding judge in the Pistorius case, Thokozile Masipa, reads her verdict. Court resumes Thursday in Pretoria, although some analysts believe the process could continue into Friday.

That’s largely because of the new age of social media we now live in. Dozens of journalists have been, and will be, in the gallery tweeting every gasp, sigh and pronouncement in the courtroom, in real time.

Oscar Pistorius, nicknamed Blade Runner for his speed and the carbon-fibre prostheses that carried him to great fame as a sprinter, is accused of the pre-meditated murder of his girlfriend, Reeva Steenkamp, on Valentine’s Day in 2013.

His defence team has argued that Pistorius mistook Steenkamp for an intruder in the night, his sense of fear and vulnerability so great that he fired four rounds through a toilet door, behind which she was found.

The prosecution contends that Steenkamp had sought shelter there to escape an angry Pistorius.

‘Everybody is invested’

Thokozile Masipa, the judge in Oscar Pistorius's murder case in South Africa, will hand down her verdict on Sept. 11. (CBC)

Nowhere, of course, has interest in the trial and its outcome been greater than in South Africa itself.

"It’s been fascinating to all, irrespective of race," the journalist John Carlin told CBC News.

Carlin is the author of Playing the Enemy: Nelson Mandela and the Game that Made a Nation which became the 2009 film Invictus. He’s now writing a book about the Pistorius trial.

"It’s rather like watching a long-running sports contest in whose outcome everybody is invested, to differing degrees, on one side or the other."

No doubt it’s got all the elements of a page turner: from Masipa, the quiet crime reporter turned judge, who has presided over the trial with an inscrutable calm, rarely commenting, to the tough prosecutor, Gerrie Nel, nicknamed the pitbull.

Reeva Steenkamp, seen in this image from a photo shoot for her work as a model, and superstar athlete Oscar Pistorius, were considered a golden couple in South Africa before Pistorius shot Steenkamp inside his home in Pretoria in 2013. (Ice Model Management/Associated Press)

And of course, there is the golden couple: a superstar athlete, compared by some of his critics to Icarus flying too close to the sun, and the beautiful law graduate and model he killed, be it by design or accident.

It’s easy in the midst of all that to forget the individuals really invested in the outcome of the trial, Pistorius himself and Steenkamp’s family.

A verdict about South Africa?

The trial also happens to pose some pretty fundamental questions for South Africa itself.

Asking South Africans whether they believe Oscar Pistorius or not is essentially asking them what kind of country they see themselves living in.

Is it a country so crime-ridden and haunted by the fear and distrust of the apartheid legacy that shooting through a toilet door in a blind panic in the middle of a guarded, gated community is conceivable?

Or is it a country where gun culture rules and young men in particular are raised with a sense of violence, anger and impunity?

Or both.

'Asking South Africans whether they believe Oscar Pistorius [front] or not is essentially asking them what kind of country they see themselves living in,' writes Margaret Evans. (Werner Beukes/Reuters)

I remember two conversations with two very different groups of women when I was in South Africa last spring. One in a wealthy Johannesburg suburb where two white women were asking themselves what they would do if Pistorius was their son. They had a lot of sympathy, one of them giving a shrug and saying, "boys will be boys."

The other took place in a nearby township where the women said they rarely report abusive husbands or partners, either because the police simply ignore them or because they need their husbands to put food on the table, or at least to watch the kids while the women do it.

There are an estimated 45 murders a day in South Africa and most of them take place in the townships, not the gated communities like the one where Pistorius shot Steenkamp.

So who do you blame? The carjackers and thieves that can sometimes live just as much in people’s imaginations as they do in reality? Or do you deal with the hard-core reality of a culture based on guns and violence?

Again, maybe both. Not everybody is convinced that the Pistorius trial or the verdict will prompt a meaningful discussion of the challenges facing South Africa, from crime to endemic poverty, and a growing gap between rich and poor.

Jay Naidoo, a former Mandela cabinet minister, Jay Naidoo wonders about how South Africans can be obsessed with the Pistorius trial yet show little interest in the police massacre of mineworkers in 2012. (Richard Devey / CBC)

The anti-apartheid campaigner and former Mandela cabinet minister, Jay Naidoo, described people’s obsession with the trial as "pure escapism," in an interview earlier this year.

"You know, 46 people can get massacred and we barely blink an eyelid and it’s off the public screens, it’s off the public memory," he said in a reference to the Marikana massacre when South African police opened fire and killed striking mine workers in 2012, and the lack of public interest in the inquiry into what happened.

But South Africa is not alone in that, he said. "It is a reflection of the world we live in."

Whatever the reason for the fascination, those who want more are likely to get it. Pistorius has reportedly been selling his various properties. The working theory, of course, is that he’ll need the money to pay for any appeal.

From pre-meditated murder to not guilty: the possible verdicts

These are the potential verdicts, and sentences, that Judge Thokozile Masipa may hand down at Oscar Pistorius’s murder trial:

  • Premeditated murder: This verdict would mean the judge believes Pistorius had "malice aforethought," meaning he planned to murder Reeva Steenkamp. This ruling would carry a life sentence, with no possibility of parole for 25 years.
  • Murder: A murder conviction would mean that Masipa believed Pistorius meant to kill someone but that there was no forward planning. This judgment would result in a compulsory sentence of 15 years.
  • Culpable homicide: Culpable homicide indicates negligence rather than malice led to the death of Reeva Steenkamp. For example, this ruling would be made if the judge finds that Pistorius was genuinely terrified and thought he was protecting himself and Steenkamp. This verdict would come with a discretionary sentence which could range from fines to 15 years in prison. 
  • Not guilty: The judge could find Pistorius not guilty in Steenkamp's death. However, he is still facing other charges including discharging firearms in public and illegal possession of ammunition.

More by Margaret Evans: Oscar Pistorius trial speaks to South Africa's 'language of violence'


Margaret Evans

Europe correspondent

Margaret Evans is a correspondent based in the CBC News London bureau. A veteran conflict reporter, Evans has covered civil wars and strife in Angola, Chad and Sudan, as well as the myriad battlefields of the Middle East.


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