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February 27, 2013
Reporter's Notebook: Inside View of Pistorius Bail Hearing
by Anita Powell
The shooting death of model Reeva Steenkamp by her boyfriend, Olympic superstar Oscar Pistorius, riveted South Africa and the world last week as millions tuned into his dramatic bail hearing. The five-day proceedings captivated the world and brought journalists from every corner of the globe.
I was in the middle of it as VOA’s new Southern Africa reporter. And all I have to show for it is a sparkly disco wristband, and a headache.
Hundreds of journalists alongside me crowded in front of the Pretoria Magistrate’s Court every morning at the crack of dawn last week for one of the holographic plastic wristbands that would gain us entry to the hot, stuffy courtroom.
The trial has been called a media circus. I think that might insult circus animals. They know how to behave themselves.
There was shoving. There was yelling. There was crying. There was even fainting. And that was just among the press corps.
But in the brighter moments, there were also touching scenes of collegiality, many a shared sandwich, and a lot of jokes my boss will not let me say on air.
In the radio corner at the front of the courtroom, a dozen of us were hopelessly entwined in a web of cables, buried under a mountain of snacks, kit bags, and water bottles and enveloped in a cloud of our collective body odor. Your VOA correspondent shrieked involuntarily at several points. That's not because of the testimony -- which was riveting -- but because our admittedly dangerous daisy chain of power strips kept shocking me.
But don’t feel sorry for me. There’s nowhere I’d rather have spent my week. You see, as VOA’s new southern Africa reporter -- I started full-time just days before Oscar Pistorius shot dead his girlfriend, Reeva Steenkamp on Valentine’s day -- it’s rare that my stories get quite this much international attention. Yet the Pistorius bail hearing managed to roll many of South Africa’s hot-button issues into one, explosive story.
Pistorius case embodies South Africa's many issues
First there is crime. This is a violent and dangerous country -- some say it’s the legacy of decades of inequality and the product of an overburdened police force and few legitimate economic opportunities for the legions of unemployed. It’s an issue that hangs over everyday life in this country, and one that permeates much of our coverage of this nation.
Then there is the legal system. Recently, I reported the story of two men who spent nearly two decades in prison for an apartheid-era crime they swear they didn’t commit. Their case languished for years because of the nation’s slow, lumbering legal system -- and they are not alone. The spokesman for the National Prosecuting Authority tells me the Gauteng branch -- which covers Johannesburg and Pretoria -- has more than 100,000 pending cases. Pistorius’ crack legal team managed to push his case through faster than most, and that did not escape the attention of his critics who accused him of using his privilege to manipulate the system. But what about the countless others?
Then there is Oscar Pistorius himself. He was a symbol of stunning achievement despite unbelievable setbacks. For many South Africans, his struggle to overcome his own limitations run parallel to the nation’s struggle to overcome its own deep wounds. Now, he has become a symbol of something else -- some say he’s an example of how the elite still have free reign in this deeply divided society.
And then, whether Pistorius’ lawyers want to be associated with this or not, there is the unrelenting tide of violence against women. This was perhaps best illustrated by the senseless gang rape and brutal killing of a South African teenager earlier in February. Pistorius’ slain girlfriend Reeva Steenkamp has become the face of this issue. A woman or girl is raped in this country every four minutes. The victims include babies and old women. And among those who survive, a stunning statistic -- more than 90 percent of women here have been emotionally or physically abused.
And then, finally, there is us. Journalists became a major part of this story when we took en masse to Twitter and gave the world minute-by-minute updates of the proceedings because recording wasn’t allowed in the courtroom. It was a great reminder to South Africa and to the world of the valuable role of the fourth estate.
So the headache was worth it.
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