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March 03, 2014

Media, Spectators Pack Pretoria Court for Pistorius Trial

by Peter Cox

The murder trial against South African Olympic runner Oscar Pistorius has opened in the Gauteng High Court. While Pistorius entered a not guilty plea to charges he intentionally killed his girlfriend last year. Outside the court, a deluge of local and foreign media, as well as spectators, gathered along the street, fighting off waves of rain. Some South Africans are calling it the trial of the decade.

Pistorius stood in a packed courtroom late Monday morning and pleaded not guilty to the charges against him.


The star athlete is accused of murdering his girlfriend Reeva Steenkamp in his Pretoria home on February 14, 2013. He allegedly shot Steenkamp through a bathroom door in his home. Pistorius claims he mistook Steenkamp for an intruder. The state argues that Steenkamp was murdered after an argument.

On the sidewalk opposite the courthouse entrance, local news operations reported live atop of scaffolding. Dozens of international television teams also were set up under tents. Cameramen and women jostled for shots as the attorneys and extended families of both Steenkamp and Pistorius arrived.

The case is being called the trial of the decade in South Africa, and satellite television provider DSTV has even started a 24-hour news channel solely dedicated to the case.

While a steady, often heavy, rain kept many away, there was still quite a crowd outside the court.

Edwin Mnisis, 20, a student at Tshwane North College nearby, decided to walk over with friends to see the commotion, and maybe catch a glimpse of the former Olympian.  "It's a high profile case…We want to see Oscar. We loved the man, we loved him. We want to support him," he said. "And hear what happened."

Barend van Dyk, of Pretoria, stood under an umbrella, watching who was coming and going. A manager for a catering company, he stopped by out of curiosity and plans to stop by every few days. "All the media is nearly here. I saw people from Japan here also now. That means they're all covering this story…I'm actually surprised how many media are covering today," van Dyk said.
 
Lebo Sabopa was among a group from the ANC Women's League. She plans to be outside the courthouse through the duration of the trial, in memory of Steenkamp.   "There's too much violence against women in this country, and that must stop," she stated.
 
The Women's League chanted and sang outside of the courthouse through the morning, as police dealt with traffic in front of the court.

Across the street, at DFC Express, a fried chicken fast food restaurant, employees were in constant motion, making coffee and preparing biscuits for dozens of journalists, who huddled under the restaurant's tent.

DFC's chief executive, Rene Jordaan, came down Monday morning to oversee business.  "Having the media here, especially the international media, is a bonus and benefit to all the businesses in the area. Not only the food industries, but also the hospitality trade. And, yeah, it's increased our coffee sales, that's for sure with this rainy weather," said Jordaan.
 
The outdoor restaurant put up a television under one of the tents, broadcasting the pop-up 24-hour Pistorius Channel.

Jordaan said while this might be good for business, it is still a tragedy, as well as a test for his country. "We all would like this to finalize as quickly as possible. I think that is the most important. It is a big question on our country and our law system in South Africa. We know the world watching us. So the quicker we can get it right, however which way it goes, it doesn't matter. As long as they do it properly and everybody's fair," he said.
 
The trial is expected to last at least three weeks.