Why Oscar’s more important than Nkandla

By Paul Pereira

There’s been some gnashing of teeth, and even whole TV and radio programmes, along with lots of print, on how weird it is that the Oscar Pistorius murder trial gets more singular media and public attention than anything else, despite this being a time of Nkandla, elections, and whatnot. But in a fundamental sense, the trial is more important than anything else on the go, and we may be pleased at the coverage it gets.

In some ways it has been an out-of-season silly time for the press. They have to deal with an election campaign that hasn’t really ignited into a discernible competition of ideas between the ANC and the DA, an Nkandla abuse of privilege so grotesque that it should ordinarily bring down the Head of State, but doesn’t, a sudden calming of violent street protests for no apparent reason, and other confusions.

But they’ve had Oscar, and what a story! The boy-girl intrigues, the fallen hero, the dead beauty, the sword now hanging over his head. This is unsurpassed human interest stuff.

But it is far more important for a more fundamental reason – its exposé to all South Africans of the working of the law in a country whose success or failure is intricately linked to how we fare with the Rule of Law.

For some, the concept of the Rule of Law means that we have laws for everything, in which case many tyrannies would qualify. But for people who value freedom, it is essentially the idea that all laws apply equally to everyone, whether king or peasant. In a country only recently emerged from a state where parliament was supreme over the law, this is hugely important, and perhaps why there is such deep anger when someone of high position or connections seems to evade consequences for illegal actions (and why apparently “select” medical paroles engender such scepticism).

The Oscar Pistorius case has been the perfect tonic – fascinating enough to capture across-the-board interest, and uniquely open to scrutiny through the coverage permissions given the media.

You may remember the early hours of 15 February last year, when social media was buzzing with shock at Oscar’s “tragic mistake” of the night before. For here we had a national, nay global, hero at the heart of a terrible accident. But here’s the thing: the “system” clicked into gear in its normal way, and simply wasn’t fazed by the personalities involved. This is the Rule of Law in action and for Pistorius, it meant, within a very few hours, arrest, bail opposed, extremely serious charges being drawn up.

From then until now, South Africans of any and every sort have witnessed the wheels of justice turn; not that slowly but with deliberation, after all. If there was a temptation to “cover” for a man so closely associated around the world with “the good SA”, it doesn’t seem ever to have entered the heads of the folk in the state departments of safety & security, and of justice.

Rightly or wrongly, and we shall soon have a verdict on that, they looked at the situation before them, and chose to go into battle for the dead citizen whom they were sure had been murdered.

And then we’ve seen it unfold in boringly reassuring fashion, from bail hearing and associated judgement, to how the court roll works, the “taxi-rank” judge selection, the working court infrastructure, the like-clockwork humdrum hearings, the thorough prosecution, the well-prepared defence, and with the rights of the accused, witnesses, specialists, and everyone else involved respected throughout.  

We’ve also seen some poor interpreter services (important and telling, given our multi-lingual make-up) and parts of the police investigation being amateurish (which may or may not be enough to help the accused, but certainly tells us of things that need fixing), while other parts have been first rate.

All in all, South Africans are for the first time ever getting to watch the Rule of Law in detailed play in a case bound to keep their attention right to its close. What they are seeing is almost entirely good news in terms of how the system works and must work. It’s bad news for those who’ve been able to flout it from this or that position of authority. Because now people know – and they’ll want it applied this way all round, all the time.

– First published in Business Day, 8 April 2014.