Monday, 18 February 2013

My Thoughts on the Pistorius/Steenkamp Thing...

I've been wanting to write about this whole sad Pistorius/Steenkamp scenario for a couple of days and have held off because, unlike some people, I don't believe in prejudging the results of criminal trials. All the same I decided I had some things I wanted to say about it.

I was absolutely gutted, on Friday, when I heard about this tragedy. I liked Pistorius, and part of the reason I liked him was because of what he represented about South Africa. I spent only a few months in South Africa in the 90's (OK, I feel old now). Nonetheless, it wormed its way into my heart in a way that no other place I've been to, ever did.

South Africa is both one of the most beautiful, and one of the ugliest places I have ever been to. The greenness and wide open space, the enormous sky, the huge thunderstorms, the high dry air that makes you feel a little reckless. The noise and the exuberance; the terrible rough sense of humour, and the kindness and humanity with which people looked the awfulness in the face. Because it was awful as well: the ugly, fascist architecture, the stinking water that lay in swamps outside the townships, the racism, and the constant knowledge that violence, to a greater or lesser degree, might come your way.

While I was living there, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, the grand enquiry/trial into the wrongs of Apartheid, was going on. It was televised, on a main channel, and hard to avoid. Some of the facts thrown up were grisly, some were unpalatable. White people would talk about it, as if in a desperate effort to convince you, the foreigner, that they weren't really like that at all. They hadn't known, and they were good people, really, so how could they have done those bad things? I think, actually, some of them were, and that's how and when I drew the conclusion that good people sometimes do bad things, and that oddly - sometimes bad people, people you really wouldn't want to sit down and have a drink with, had done extraordinarily good ones, too.

This is something I have believed ever since. Strangely, a lot of things I believe have been shaped by what I saw in South Africa. From a distance, it's easy to think about the great names that ended Apartheid, but up close, it wasn't really like that: it was more like a process of everyone shuffling, with some degree of embarrassment, nervousness, and grumbling, into the same queue to pay the electricity bill. If that sounds simple enough, there was also the concept of queueing, and before that, the concept that one might have to pay for electricity, rather that steal it from the oppressive racist state. That is, if you had the electricity in the first place. But the fact they did this, at all, after so much violence, was a shocking, inspiring thing. Sometimes, when I hear people moaning about the state of humanity and how we're all doomed, I feel cross and want to say I can't, don't, and won't ever believe that: but I generally don't, since when pushed to explain it, even in my own head, all I can say is - South Africa.

Nonetheless it's always been a violent country, throughout the entire 20th Century. I worked as a volunteer, for a few weeks, at the Women's National Coalition. I turned up on spec, and they offered to let me file their archives. I did. Amongst the documents were one or two abandoned, tedious drafts of the negotiations which had ended Apartheid. While I was filing, the rest of the organisation was organising a demonstration against violence against women. Like a dutiful volunteer, I turned up. So did Mandela, then the president: he already looked tired. He is not a very good orator: his speech was meaningless and dull, I remember not a word of it. Speech done, he started mocking various politicians who had not turned up: and was funny and mischievous.

It was the only time I ever went to Pretoria, which is where Friday's tragedy happened. I cannot remember the statistics from the Coalition where I worked about violence against women, or indeed violence in general, but I do recall they were shocking.

I also recall that when I was there,  it was still common to find a degree of racism amongst whites that would make a foreigner cringe. 'The blecks, they're not like us,' said a woman on about my second night in Jo'burg. I walked out. After three months, I wasn't batting an eyelid. Also, a lot of this unreconstructed idiocy, in which racism and machismo went together, seemed to be expressed through sport.

This is why, when I was watching the Olympics, I managed to have a little racist incident, all by myself, in my own living room. Kirani James, who had just run out Oscar Pistorius, leant in to hug him. I flinched, expecting Pistorius to do the same, but he didn't. He just returned the hug. Who, I asked myself, was being an arse in that interaction? Well, me. Later, I saw Pistorius being interviewed, and his quiet assertion, without bitterness, that he would take what he considered his rightful place made me think of all the very best things about being South African. I felt so happy, that some of these bad things I had seen had slipped away. I loved watching him run. He looked so very very free.

But now, it seems, all the bad things were waiting for him, as well. The paranoia, and the violence, and the inability to think past next Tuesday because you might be dead anyway. I feel like the bad things came and claimed one of the good people. I feel like this has gone on too long, now.

I don't know what happened in Pretoria on Friday. I do know that it took that country decades of bloodshed to have a fair and decent rule of law, and it should be adhered to.

I am gutted, anyway.