Khadija Patel: Justice on trial

Khadija Patel. Picture: Supplied.

Khadija Patel. Picture: Supplied.

An article by Khadija Patel on the Oscar Pistorius Trial. Khadija Patel is a writing fellow at the University of Witwatersrand’s Institute for Social and Economic Research (Wiser).

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With the Oscar Pistorius trial, it’s not the South African justice system on trial.

“Is it still not over?” an exasperated court official asked me as I sat down next to the water cooler outside his office at the Pretoria Magistrate’s Court. The Oscar Pistorius bail hearing had captured the world’s attention, and it had also sent reporters like me to narrow corridors of the court, searching out a plug and some silence, to file a story.

I smiled apologetically to him.

The circus would go on for another day at least.

“You see,” he said gesturing at the queue of people sitting on a wooden bench ahead of us, “We deal with vulnerable people in this section of the court, and this racket is not helping us do our job.”

I nodded in understanding, slinking back against the cold, brick wall, aware that I was as much the problem as the noisy scrum of photographers a few meters away.

And why exactly were we there anyway?

Earlier that day, another court official had asked me, “So, every time we have a murder case, can we expect all of you here again?”

I offered a coy smile in response to that too, unsure why it was so important for me to be there, to cover this particular bail hearing and not any other.

And as I spied the queue of people on the wooden bench, speculating what had brought them there, breathing the muggy, unforgiving air of the fourth floor of a Pretoria court house, I wondered what exactly made them “vulnerable”. I was forced to confront the reality of other people’s problems, but I also had to be oblivious to them. As though the only thing worthy of my attention in that entire courtroom, the only case that merited my presence, involved Oscar Pistorius.

Sitting cross-legged on the dusty floor, these questions were an unwanted distraction, an unwelcome intrusion, much like the French radio reporter who had just asked if she could share the plug point.

I had a story to file.

More than one year later, I’m still not sure why it was so important for me to be there, telling the story of that bail hearing, rushing to file that story.

The inimitable celebrity of Oscar Pistorius is the most obvious answer, but it is not the whole answer.

And now, with a trial one Sunday paper has billed, “South Africa’s OJ Simpson” moment, those two remarks from the Magistrates Court officials are a pertinent commentary, a valid observation of media behaviour throughout the last year.

There’s no denying this trial makes for a great story. It will have a definite beginning, a middle and an end. There is a victim and a potential villain. The protagonists are clearly defined. The twists and turns will not be predictable. The criteria for a great story are all satisfied, and journalists, in all their guises are essentially storytellers.

But as this story unravels on our television screens, Twitter feeds and radio waves in pockets of sensationalism, some argue that the attention riveted on the Oscar Pistorius trial is valuable as an analysis of the state of the South African criminal justice system.

These attempts to justify the attention for this particular trial and not any of the other hundreds of murder trials that pass through our courts, however, deny the relevance of the courts to our everyday lives.

Whether it is a traffic violation to settle, or maintenance money to chase, the courts do touch our lives. It is not some distant institution that deals with other people’s problems. It handles our problems. It impacts our lives every day and not just when a wealthy sportsman finds himself hauled before a judge.

This trial, however, is not the test of the South African judicial system.

It is Oscar Pistorius on trial for the premeditated murder of Reeva Steenkamp. It is not the South African judicial system. Because whatever shambles the courts are (allegedly) in, the true reality of the judicial system will not be exhibited in the Pretoria High Court for the next few weeks. Pistorius will not be denied a fair trial. If anything, more attention will be paid to the mechanics of justice to ensure our justice system does not exhibit weakness.

The real test of the South African judicial system lies in those murder cases we’ll never hear about, those “vulnerable” people queuing on the wooden bench, the people passing through the court rooms every day whose stories do not make for compelling television. The real tests of the South African judicial system are ignored.

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