Let's Think

Oscar trial leaves much to reflect on

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The drama surrounding superstar athlete Oscar Pistorius since he shot his girlfriend Reeva Steenkamp on Valentine’s Day last year, does not end with his sentencing in the North Gauteng High Court, but leaves much to reflect on.

From the word go, alongside the formal court proceedings, a second ‘trial’ was taking place in the ‘court of the people’, especially as represented by social media. In that ‘court’ many immediately judged him guilty of murder. And it is there, in particular, that a mirror was held up to society, inviting some serious introspection.

Apart from the level of media coverage allowed at the formal trial, the new reality of the social media has put the application of the accepted sub judice rule (aimed at ensuring an independent judgement of facts) under serious strain.

To this can be added the question whether it is wise to allow circumstances in which legal functionaries are cast in ‘leading roles’ in what effectively becomes reality TV. Is it not expecting too much of such functionaries to remain purely legal professionals?

It might also be questioned whether it was appropriate for the National Prosecuting Authority to – at the time of Oscar’s conviction on the lesser charge of culpable homicide as opposed to murder – indicate that it was unhappy with the verdict and might appeal against it.

Apart from the fact that it might be interpreted as having been a pre-emptive ploy at securing the highest possible sentence before the appropriate stage of the trial, it set off other questionable reactions, also in conflict with the sub judice rule.

Pre-empting the judicial process, the African National Congress Women’s League jumped onto the bandwagon and issued a statement that if there is an appeal they would want to be added as “a friend of the court”. The timing of this statement before the present court case has run its full course can hardly be interpreted as anything else but an attempt to influence the court from outside the courtroom.

Restorative justice or revenge?

The more fundamental question South African society at large is confronted with in the emotional ‘debate’ – to use a euphemism – is what should weigh the heaviest in our criminal justice system, our craving for revenge or a desire for justice to be done.

An analysis of postings on the social media indicates a strong trend among the broad public who want to see the death of Reeva Steenkamp avenged as the uppermost objective of the judicial process. It demands an “eye for an eye”.

Another trend is one of deep sympathy with the ‘tragedy’ that Oscar’s life represents, one that sees him as a ‘victim’ of circumstances and wants leniency to be shown.
The debate between revenge or retributive (as in an eye for an eye) and restorative (as in re-balancing) justice goes back millenniums. Author Margaret Atwood, in her book Payback, points out that the word ‘revenge’, comes from the Latin word vindicare, which means to “justify or liberate”.

In response, Howard Zehr writes in an academic paper: “To take revenge is one way to liberate oneself of the feelings of anger and dishonour. The score that needs to be settled is a psychic sore, a wound to the soul. But tit-for-tat, she says, leads to rat-a-tat-tat, an endless chain of violence. Courts of law are one attempt to end the chain, though they often leave a bitter taste. Forgiveness is another. I would add restorative justice processes as a third option and this may or may not involve forgiveness as such.”

Probably the best definition of the divergence between justice and revenge is that “... revenge is done to satisfy the party who suffered the wrongdoing, while justice is done for the sake of putting a semblance of fairness to society. Another good way of stating the key differences between the two, is that justice is what should be done, while revenge is what you think should be done.”

It is, nevertheless, as Leon F. Seltzer in an article in the February 2014 Psychology Today writes, also true that the “... terms revenge and justice often get muddled. And that’s hardly surprising, for in the course of history, they’ve frequently been used interchangeably. You may even be familiar with the phrase ‘just revenge’. Still, as meanings alter and evolve over time, the connotations of these two words have increasingly diverged. It’s now uncommon to see them used synonymously.”

As, or maybe if, we desire to keep on building a truly ‘just’ society, South Africans should collectively, as the debate around the Oscar-case rages on, carefully consider the weight we want to lend to our desires for revenge.

Mahatma Gandhi once said: “An eye for an eye will only make the whole world blind.”

Let’s think about that.

by Piet Coetzer

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