You may have heard that South African track star Oscar Pistorius was sentenced on Tuesday to five years in prison for killing his girlfriend, Reeva Steenkamp. You may also be vaguely aware that the trial has been a source of tremendous attention and debate within South Africa and abroad, touching on issues much bigger than this one athlete and his crime, to the extent that his trial is often compared to that of OJ Simpson in the US. Here, then, is a basic explainer on the essentials of the case, why people care about it so much, and why it matters.
1) Who is Oscar Pistorius and why do so many people care?
The 27-year-old South African man is one of the most famous athletes in the world. Due to a birth disorder, his legs were amputated below the knees when he was 11 months old. He became a renowned athlete despite his disability, and in 2012 ran in both the Paralympics, where he set multiple world records, and against able-bodied athletes in the Olympics. He was nicknamed Blade Runner for his distinctive prosthetic legs and lived the glamorous life of a celebrity.
In February 2013, Pistorius shot and killed his girlfriend, Reeva Steenkamp, in his home; he says he'd thought she was an intruder. The incident became a huge story within South Africa and beyond, but not just because it's dramatic celebrity gossip. It's opened up huge issues in South Africa of security and fear, of the country's unusually severe domestic violence problem and perhaps most of all, of race, a subject that is never far from the surface here.
2) What happened the night Pistorius shot his girlfriend?
Here are the facts that are known: Steenkamp spent the night at Pistorius' home on February 13, 2013; the night before Valentine's Day. They had been dating for three months.
Early the next morning, Steenkamp entered and locked the toilet stall in the bathroom off of Pistorius' bedroom. Pistorius went to his bed, pulled out a pistol he kept under his mattress, and fired four shots into the bathroom, three of which struck Steenkamp.
Pistorius forced open the door, called for an ambulance, and carried Steenkamp downstairs, where she died.
3) What do Pistorius and the prosecution say happened?
Pistorius admitted in his affidavit that he shot Steenkamp but said he fired in self-defense. He said he had woken up on his own, gone to retrieve a fan from a nearby balcony, and heard noises in the bathroom, which he feared were a home intruder. He assumed Steenkamp was still in bed when he entered the bathroom to confront the intruder, whom he believed he was shooting through the locked stall door. From his affidavit:
I felt a sense of terror rushing over me. There were no burglar bars across the bathroom window [which was open] and I knew contractors who worked at my house had left the ladders outside. ... I believed that when the intruder/s came out of the toilet, we would be in grave danger. I felt trapped as my bedroom door was locked and I have limited mobility on my stumps.
The prosecution argued that Pistorius murdered Steenkamp over an argument the two had had the night before and that had continued into the early morning, culminating with Steenkamp locking herself into the bathroom. The indictment stated: "Some of the State witnesses heard a woman scream, followed by moments of silence, then heard gunshots. ... The screams were extinguished at the same time of the last shots."
The judge ultimately ruled that Pistorius killed Steenkamp because he mistook her for an intruder, not intending to attack her. Pistorius was convicted of culpable homicide, which is roughly equivalent to manslaughter, and sentenced to up to five years in prison.
4) Why is this trial such a big deal?
In part this is simple fascination with a celebrity scandal. Pistorius was an international star and, within South Africa, a national hero, whose story of overcoming would resonate in any society but feels especially important in a country trying to move past its own dark history of Apartheid. And, less nobly, there is a tabloid appeal to the story of a bedroom celebrity murder.
But the real importance of the case goes to much deeper issues of race, inequality, and domestic violence, which are especially sensitive and contentious in South Africa.
5) Pistorius and his girlfriend are both white. So why do people say this trial is all about South Africa's race issues?
There are underlying racial implications in Pistorius' defense that he felt so threatened by a possible intruder that he fired four bullets into his own bathroom, killing his girlfriend.
White South Africans can often be obsessed with home security. Walk through middle class white neighborhoods, or especially wealthy white neighborhoods like Pistorius', and you will see fortresses: high walls, barred windows, barbed wire, motorized gates, and 24-hour guards. Inside, it's common to have panic buttons on either side of the bed; so is gun ownership. Pistorius couched his defense in this fear of home intrusion, saying he was "acutely aware" of that threat and had been burgled before.
South African journalist Margie Orford articulated the racial implications of this brilliantly, arguing that the case was, in a sense, about three people: Pistorius, Steenkamp, and the imaginary intruder that Pistorius has built his defense around — and who is implicitly black:
This imaginary body [in Pistorius' bathroom] of the paranoid imaginings of suburban South Africa has lurked like a bogeyman at the periphery of this story for the past year. It is the threatening body, nameless and faceless, of an armed and dangerous black intruder.
White South Africans' security obsession is soaked in racial politics. During the Apartheid era from 1948 to 1994, the white supremacist government used white fears of black violence (among many other racist ideas) to justify forcing the country's non-white majority to live physically apart and without full rights or citizenship. That fear has persisted.
Violent crime is indeed a major problem in South African cities. The close proximity of urban poverty with urban wealth, along with a tattered social safety net and poor policing and other factors, have contributed to this. Weak law enforcement has led many white South Africans to rely on private security that keeps them even more isolated, driving their fears of the largely black underclass.
This rise in crime has coincided with power transitioning from the racist and despotic Apartheid government to, after 1994, a democratic government that unfortunately suffers from serious corruption and institutional weakness. All of this has contributed to a sense among many South African whites that they are losing "their" country and a sense of siege amid a hostile environment.
So when Pistorius' lawyers argued that even the fear of a possible intruder that would justify his firing into his own bathroom, the subtext was that a rich white South African like him should be so terrified of a black intruder that this extreme violence was acceptable.
In this sense, then, the trial had been a sort of referendum on whether whites in South Africa are right to be so afraid of blacks — and to reserve the defensive use of deadly force against them, an idea with echoes of Apartheid-era white fear of and control over blacks.
6) Why is domestic violence such a major issue here?
One narrative of Steenkamp's killing — the one presented by the prosecution — is that she was a victim of domestic violence that had spiraled out of control. Text messages between Steenkamp and Pistorius portrayed him as at times jealous and controlling — and with a temper — which Steenkamp clearly struggled to deal with. The morning of her death, neighbors said they heard screams from Pistorius' house before the shots were fired.
Steenkamp, who was working toward becoming a lawyer and was a celebrity in her own right as a model, had herself worked on domestic abuse issues. The possibility that Steenkamp was murdered in a case of domestic abuse would be made even more outrageous by Pistorius' defense that he thought he was firing at an intruder. It implies that the justice system cares more about protecting men from imaginary intruders than women from domestic violence, and that that's leaving women in danger.
That danger is already a national crisis in South Africa, which is thought to have one of the highest rates of domestic violence in the world. It's difficult to say for sure since South African police do not classify domestic violence as a discrete crime — itself part of the problem — but a study in the province of Gauteng found that over 50 percent of women reported being abused by their partners and over 75 percent of men admitted to abuse. More than one third of the men surveyed — 37 percent — said they'd committed at least one rape.
There is a sense in South Africa, then, that domestic violence is both rampant and largely unpunished. The fact that the judge in Pistorius's trial rejected the prosecution's case that Steenkamp was murdered in an act of domestic abuse, to many in South Africa, feels like a perpetuation of that problem.
7) Why is the question of whether Pistorius goes to prison so controversial?
Prison is another major racial component to all this. Pistorius argued he could not be sent to a South African prison, and should instead be placed under house arrest, because the country's prison system is unequipped to handle a person with his disability safely.
Prisons are a deeply racial issue in South Africa: they were used as a tool for control of blacks by the Apartheid government, remain disproportionately filled with black South Africans today, and have not improved substantially in their safety or reputation since they were tool of political repression. The New York Times describes them as having "a reputation for overcrowding, gang violence and abuse" as well as "breeding grounds for H.I.V. and tuberculosis."
The idea that Pistorius should be spared the dangers of South African prison carries the implication that those dangers are acceptable when applied to black South Africans but not when they apply to rich, famous whites. And that further reinforced the idea that Pistorius, as a white South African, was receiving a separate, softer justice than what is applied to the country's black citizens.
The court did spend some time deliberating on whether Pistorius could safely and legally be sent to prison. The judge ruled that he could.
8) Why was the Pistorius trial broadcast on TV?
For the first time in South Africa's history, the entire trial was made open to TV broadcast. This compounded the tabloidy obsession with the trial, but it also reflected a correct calculation by the South African government that the trial was about more than just these two people, but so resonated with larger national issues that the country had a certain emotional need to tune in — that this was South Africa's trial as well as Pistorius's.
Still, it's undeniable that the videos were often riveting. Prosecutor Gerrie Nel, known as "the Pitbull" for his aggressive style, could be especially confrontational, as in this video of Nel cross-examining Pistorius.
To understand the emotional impact of the Pistorius trial, it helps to watch him perform as an athlete — especially when he ran, for example here in the 2012 London Olympics, against able-bodied athletes. It is fairly amazing to see, and while his athletic achievements have very little to do with his crime beyond the immediate implications of his disability, it does help to explain why so many people found him so inspiring — and have felt shock, disappointment, or confusion at his crime.
It is also worth reading Steenkamp's notes to herself for a speech that she was set to give to high school students on the day of her death — on suffering and surviving domestic abuse. She recalls, in the notes, the experience of overcoming the trauma of a previous relationship that had been abusive:
I lost a lot of self-worth during my last year in PE [Port Elizabeth] before I moved to Jozi and it took some serious soul searching to remind myself of my value in this world. ... Being loved by others, although an amazing feeling to have the appreciation of others, does not define your place in the world.
9) What's going to happen to Pistorius?
The judge gave him a five-year sentence for culpable murder for Steenkamp's killing and a suspended three-year sentence for a related firearms charge. He is required to serve at least one sixth of that — ten months — actually behind bars, but after that he will eligible for house arrest, and he is expected to likely get it. Once his sentence is halfway over, he will be eligible for parole. So he could be free by as soon as early 2017.
More broadly, though, South Africa's struggles with race, crime, inequality, and domestic violence will continue to be just as contentious and difficult as they were before the trial began, or before Pistorius fired four fatal bullets at his own girlfriend.