Pistorius shoves race, crime and punishment in South Africa's face

Thu Oct 23, 2014 2:11pm EDT
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By Ed Cropley

PRETORIA (Reuters) - As Oscar Pistorius spent his first day behind bars this week, a suspected child rapist and murderer went on trial at the same Pretoria court in a case that has also provoked fierce debate about crime and punishment in post-apartheid South Africa.

Although the two defendants, one wealthy and white, the other poor and black, are from opposite ends of a still-divided society, both cases have revealed an alarming lack of faith in the justice system of the "Rainbow Nation".

In her jailing on Tuesday of Olympic and Paralympic star Pistorius, convicted of the culpable homicide of his model girlfriend, Judge Thokozile Masipa stressed the need for rehabilitation and an "element of mercy".

South Africa, she said, had moved on from the dark ages of an eye-for-an-eye to a "modern era", a reflection of the moral idealism that took root 20 years ago when Nelson Mandela became the country's first black president, ending decades of brutal and oppressive white-minority rule.

The reaction to Pistorius' five-year sentence - likely to mean just 10 months in jail - was swift and overwhelmingly critical, suggesting most people in a society plagued by violent crime do not share Masipa's views.

After her controversial decision to rule out a murder verdict, 72 percent of respondents in a TV poll dismissed the sentence as too lenient. Many black South Africans said it was another example of wealthy whites securing preferential justice.

"It's because he has money. If it was a black man he would have got 15 or 20 years," said Vusi Khoza, a 42-year-old minibus taxi driver waiting at a Johannesburg bus-station.


South African Olympic and Paralympic sprinter Oscar Pistorius (C) enters a police van after his sentencing at the North Gauteng High Court in Pretoria October 21, 2014. REUTERS/Siphiwe Sibeko