'Marching on Pistorious:' Athlete and Democracy On Trial in South Africa
By Danny Schechter
New York, New York: With Nelson Mandela's death, news from South Africa seemed to have died along with the world's most famous ex-political prisoner turned president. It was as if the people there don't deserve to be covered unless there is a larger than life celebrity or scandal to focus on.
Happily for the media industry there is a now an anti-Mandela in the public eye---famous not for what he achieved, but infamous for killing his girlfriend, mistaking her for an intruder who he gunned down. It was either a tragic accident or the work of mad man.
Oscar Pistorius' trial is now getting far more coverage than the one that Mandela and his co-defendents went through in 1962 leading to his life sentence. That's partly because his late live-in lover, Reeva Steenkamp, was a stunning blonde beauty known to local media, while he was a medal winning athlete dubbed the "blade runner" because he had been a double amputee since childhood and overcame adversity to won races wearing prosthetic devices.
This story of white on white violence--although, note, it is never, described that way---is being given the full tabloid treatment with cover stories in People Magazine and lots of hype by the networks.
Unlike the days of apartheid, a black judge is hearing this case with race rarely alluded to. Oscar had lived in a pricey gated community where fear of black burglers is legion, all an unstated reflection of the dramatic inequality that remains in that country, and another dimension of the back story about his fears and guilt that gets less press attention.
If Pistorius had killed an unknown black intruder, instead of his celebrity paramour, this trial wouldn't be news.
The coverage of him as been mosty negative although he has fought back with his own communications team with a Twitter feed, @OscarHardTruth , designed to give "factual updates" on the trial. Its profile reads, "Truth Shall Prevail. Innocent until Proven Guilty." "http://www.oscarpistorius.com . In just 24 hours, it had over 16 400 followers, but only follows 28 -- mostly international media outlets.
South Africa's Media Monitor, Media Tenor, said that the local media is trying him as well as the court. According to researcher, Minnette Nieuwoudt, "my instinct tells me the media likes a damsel-in-distress type of story. The outright victim is something that resonates with a lot of people. The fact that she was very beautiful, it made her a bit of an icon.
Pistorius, on the other hand, started getting increasingly negative coverage over the months after the shooting.
"There seemed to be a slight change in the tonality. Also, with regards to Oscar, he was initially compared to fallen sport heroes -- then this changed to a more the general criminal comparison. First, he was an athlete who stumbled. Now, he's a criminal, who used to be an athlete," said Nieuwoudt."
But even as the world focuses on his courtroom tears and the aggressive and often bungled prosecution that aims to show the dark side of this Olympic hero, other issues of perhaps worst crimes in South Africa draw little interest from the global media machine.
2014 is the twentieth anniversary of South Africa's "freedom" and the coming of democracy. It is an election year with national campaign underway pitting President Jacob Zuma, who was once part of the African National Congress's armed struggle, and a popular if controversial/detested politician seeking reelection against a number of challengers.
Zuma is carrying lots of baggage because of a current theft of public monies for private use scandal involving lavish improvements on his home compound, and an earlier rape case.
The ANC has a serious political challenge as well.