Authors: John Carlin
‘Today a new season starts for us as a family,’ he said. ‘Not just the Pistorius family alone, but the Steenkamp family. It has been a harrowing twenty months. We are all emotionally drained and exhausted.
‘We accept the judgment. Oscar will embrace this opportunity to pay back to society.
‘I want to say something as an uncle. I hope Oscar will start his own healing process as we walk down the path of restoration. As a family we are ready to support and guide Oscar as he serves his sentence.’
The question now remaining was how the Steenkamps would react. If they reacted as negatively as they had to the culpable homicide verdict six weeks earlier, public controversy would continue to
rage on their behalf, and Nel might find himself under pressure to lodge an appeal
As the courtroom emptied, and all that remained of Pistorius’s presence were the white roses on the bench where he had sat and the empty green bucket beneath it, the Steenkamps’ lawyer, Dup de Bruyn, provided reporters with an answer. Reeva’s parents, he said, were ‘satisfied’ with the sentence. Barry Steenkamp then confirmed what De Bruyn had said, declaring himself to be ‘very satisfied’. June Steenkamp, smiling wanly, said, ‘It’s right.’ She added that the sentence had given her ‘a sort of closure’, but there would be no final closure without Reeva, ‘unless you can magic her back’.
Possible further cause for satisfaction, if not comfort, for the Steenkamp family came later in the day in the form of a statement from the International Paralympic Committee saying that Pistorius would not be allowed to return to competition until 2019, the year his sentence would officially end. By that time he would be thirty-three years old, which meant that his athletics career was well and truly over. Over, too, was any possibility that his contracts with Nike and other commercial sponsors would ever be resumed. The punishment he had received in court could have been much worse – and it was certainly far more benign than he had feared, or than most people had expected when the trial had begun seven months and eighteen days earlier – yet Barry Roux had been right in his closing arguments the Friday before when he had said that Pistorius was ‘broke and broken’, that there was ‘nothing left’ of the icon he had once been.
An hour after Judge Masipa had passed her sentence Pistorius was seen exiting the court building by a side entrance, surrounded by police, before being led into a yellow and white armored vehicle and taken away to begin his new life at Kgosi Mampuru prison – twenty
minutes’ drive from the house he no longer owned at Silver Woods Estate, where, in the early morning of Valentine’s Day 2013, in a moment of criminal recklessness, he had sealed his own and Reeva Steenkamp’s fates.
Millions of people had been gripped by the case from the morning the shooting happened. Most had made up their minds from the beginning as to why Pistorius did it, and then proceeded to follow the trial having taken one side or the other. A very few had personal reasons for wanting to believe one version or another. Among these were Pistorius’s family and friends like Ebba Guðmundsdóttir and her mother, Sigga Hanna Jóhannesdóttir. On the other side were the Steenkamp family and friends of Reeva’s, whose understandable need it was to seek comfort for their loss in the punishment of the individual who had occasioned it. For the majority who had no personal stake in the trial’s outcome, each chose to believe the version that best accommodated their need to find some justice and sense in the chaos of life. For some, making sense of Reeva Steenkamp’s death meant seeing Pistorius as a murderer; for others, it meant seeing him as a hero who had succumbed to one tragic error of judgment.
South Africa itself provokes similarly contradictory responses. It is a country that many people around the world have watched with interest, seeing in its political evolution an experiment with lessons and repercussions for humanity as a whole. During apartheid, the South African drama was regarded as a morality play in which the parties representing good and evil were clearly defined. Even the opposing sides in the Cold War were in agreement that apartheid was ‘a crime against humanity’. In that morality play Mandela had played the role of the prince-redeemer. He was the larger-than-life figure
who had set up the expectation when he assumed power in 1994 that South Africa would live happily ever after, overcoming the legacy of racial injustice and building the foundations of an exemplary democracy. But that was South Africa’s heroic age, a time of forgiveness and reconciliation the likes of which the world had rarely seen. Mandela’s successors did not live up to his exalted image. Corruption set in, both moral and financial. People of meaner minds took power. The old idealism gave way to self-interest and greed. And thus for many people, inside South Africa and beyond, the experiment had failed. It turned out to be a great disappointment.
Just like Pistorius. He had been a fairy-tale prince, handsome and charming. His story was one of the most unlikely in the history of sport. He had had his legs amputated at eleven months old and had run in the Olympic Games. South Africans of all races, weary of their political leaders, sought in him a hero to fill Mandela’s boots. Feted around the globe, he made them proud to be South African once again, as they had been proud when Mandela was head of state.
After Pistorius killed Reeva Steenkamp, it became tempting to see him as a symbol not of South Africa at its best but at its violent, criminal, worst. That, as Judge Masipa’s verdict helped indicate, was to oversimplify. Pistorius did remain a symbol of South Africa, but of a South Africa that was complex, ambiguous and could no longer claim to play a heroic role on the world stage. In 2014, Pistorius offered a more faithful mirror of the country than did Mandela.
The trial had heard from a defense witnesses that there were ‘two Oscars’. There were two South Africas. One was uplifting; the other was frightening. One was made up of people who were unusually polite, who were generous, indomitable, forgiving and brave; the other, of people who were reckless, volatile, violent and hot-headed. South Africans’ politeness towards strangers was in part a self-defense
mechanism, a response to an awareness that people might turn angry without obvious provocation.
But if Pistorius were to have offered only a portrait of the country in which he was born, the story of his rise and fall would not have proved so compelling to the rest of the world. As hero and anti-hero, he offers an archetype to which all people can relate. He is an extreme case of an individual who has made the best of the cards that life has dealt him, but he has revealed himself to possess to an equally extreme degree the insecurities that all are prey to.
His life story is archetypal, too, in its striking vulnerability to the random and the haphazard. He was cursed with cruel luck, but also blessed with immense good luck. His destiny at birth was never to be able to walk, or to do so haltingly at best. But because of a decision by his parents, which they might easily not have taken, and because of the uniquely driven mother it fell upon him to have, and because one day his grandmother dialed a number that led him to meet a young prosthetics specialist – who should have been a farmer – Pistorius ended up becoming one of the most celebrated athletes in the world. On the other hand, after his mother died there was no one around in his life with the authority or the wisdom to ground him, to see that he was a victim of his own success and that he needed help to come to terms honestly with his disability, with the limitations his mother had taught him to deny. He remained trapped in a floundering adolescence, too unfinished to stop the fame and the money from going to his head. He was a teenager in an adult’s body, prone to foolish infatuations with women in whom he imagined he saw the image of his mother, irresponsibly susceptible to the allure of guns and fast cars.
Yet that was not the whole story either, for he was impressively polished in his public presentation of himself and he could also
be extraordinarily kind, considerate and empathetic – as the little Icelandic boy Haflidi, the Paralympic swimmer Tadhg Slattery, Samkelo Radebe, and his friends and admirers in Gemona del Friuli would attest.
Early on in the Pistorius trial, a talk-show host on a Johannesburg radio station said he had recently talked to a retired judge who had told him there were two kinds of truth: ‘Legal truth, and truth truth’. The legal truth was narrow, selective and exclusive of both the good and the bad in Pistorius. Samkelo, who phoned Pistorius to congratulate him on the day he was acquitted of murder, was the one who said it was unjust to define his whole life in terms of the legal truth of the fatal crime he had committed in a few seconds of delirium. The ‘truth truth’ was that Pistorius was an enigma, a man of many masks. Jail, as one of his teenage fans had scrawled on the bus shelter outside the Pretoria High Court, did not have to be the end. In the silence of his cell he might find the time and mental space to ponder at last who he was, who he wanted to be and which mask fitted him best.
This book is the outcome of many people’s time, effort and kindness. So many individuals have I talked to in the task of assembling
Chase Your Shadow
that it would be an impossible act of memory to recall every single one. Thank you to all and apologies to those I omit to mention here.
First, I must express my gratitude to my old friend Paul Greengrass. It was Paul who suggested to me the idea of writing this book in the first place and it was he who coached and encouraged me along the way, offering invaluable input on structure, point of view and what he calls ‘narrative pulse’. I cannot thank him enough.
My editor at HarperCollins, David Hirshey, can never be thanked enough either. His attention to style, eye for detail and hard toil generally provided immeasurable added value.
My agent, Anne Edelstein, went, as ever, far beyond the call of duty, both with her finely critical readings of my first drafts and with the therapy she was ever on hand to provide when I despaired, moaned or flagged.
Shelagh Frawley read through everything too and, with her meticulous eye for grammatical detail, taught me long overdue lessons on the use of the pluperfect, among other things. Many thanks also to Lauren Jacobson, whose reading of the text provided legal comfort and general reassurance.
Sue Edelstein, my rock, was another diligent reader – ever enthusiastic, encouraging and supportive on all fronts.
Devon Koen delivered a wealth of essential documentary research. Always swift to respond, he was a delight to work with.
Hannia, Tracey, Bella and Frans provided a warm and welcoming home from home at Ilali, the best bed-and-breakfast in Johannesburg. Thank you to my excellent friends Aspasia Karras and Mark Phillips, who also housed and fed me, while providing plenty of ideas for the book; likewise the no less excellent Indra De Lanerolle and Nicola Galombik.
Debora Patta made some key introductions for me, was a constantly valuable sounding board, great friend and – not least – speedily reliable Johannesburg–Pretoria chauffeur.
I won’t go through all the people who helped me in South Africa, the US, Italy, Iceland or the UK but hopefully the mention of many of their names in the book will serve as acknowledgement of their generosity. Huge thanks to all. I will, however, single out Samkelo Radebe, who provided a measure of wisdom and insight that I alone could never have mustered. Samkelo also gave me the title of the book.
Also thank you to Greg Nott, Leila Amanpour, Reine Malan and family, Anneliese Burgess, Antony Altbeker, Riaan Labuschagne, Leon van Niekerk, Carolyn Raphaely and Natalie Holland. Natalie was the first person I interviewed for the book and painter of a most eloquent unfinished portrait of Oscar Pistorius.
Finally, thank you to all those involved in this enterprise who work for the publishing houses around the world that have acquired this book. Most of their names I do not know, though hopefully I will get to meet several of them in due course. The heroic translators of the book into various languages deserve special recognition. As does James Nightingale, my patient and admirably organized editor at Atlantic
Books. Big thanks also to Margaret Stead, Fran Owen and David Atkinson at Atlantic, the indomitable Sydney Pierce at HarperCollins, David Figueras at Planeta and Nathalie Fiszman at Seuil. I am not forgetting Toby Mundy, either.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
John Carlin grew up in Argentina and in the UK and spent 1989 –95 in South Africa as the
’s correspondent there. He has also lived in Spain, Nicaragua, Mexico and Washington, writing for
New York Times
, among other papers, and working for the BBC. His previous books include,
Playing the Enemy
(2008), the basis of the film
, directed by Clint Eastwood, which earned Oscar nominations for both Matt Damon and Morgan Freeman, and