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.
While the anger in the Twittersphere is unlikely to translate into violence against Pistorius, the same cannot be said for Ntokozo Hadebe, the 28-year-old accused who followed directly in the athlete’s footsteps in the dock of the Pretoria High Court on Wednesday.
When he was arrested a year ago in Diepsloot, a vast shanty town north of Johannesburg, a mob was baying for blood, burning tyres outside the police station where he was being held and demanding he be handed over for instant justice.
“Touch my child and you die next,” one placard read.
Hadebe’s charge sheet reveals why Judge Masipa’s notions of balanced and merciful justice belong to a different world for the many South Africans living in tin-shack townships that have changed little since the end of apartheid.
Hadebe, who pleaded “not guilty” on all counts, is accused of the rape, and then murder, of three girls aged 5, 3 and 2, in Diepsloot in September and October 2013.
The body of the oldest victim, Anelisa Mkhonto, was dumped beside a rubbish bin. She had been beaten about the head and suffocated with a blue plastic bag.
The other two victims, cousins Thokozani and Yonelisa Mali, were found partially clothed and strangled in a communal toilet.
In giving evidence on the first day of Hadebe’s trial, Anelisa’s grandmother, Bongiwe Mcubuse, broke down as she recounted the moment refuse collectors told her the mutilated body of the child had been found.
“I’m not sure whether the court will give me justice or relief,” she later told reporters outside the court. “The justice that I want is for the person who did this to disappear from society forever - three life sentences. But you never know with the courts. You can’t really trust them.”
Anyone convicted of the kind of charges Hadebe faces would undoubtedly be punished severely in a South African court, regardless of their race or wealth.
But Mcubuse’s sentiments, alluded to by Masipa when she spoke of the “reputation of the administration of justice”, run deep in South Africa’s townships and are a major factor in the vigilantism that stalks their dusty streets.
“It does reflect a sense of desperation about crime in many of these areas and a sense that all too frequently the courts don’t deliver justice,” said Rachel Jewkes, a gender violence expert at the Medical Research Council in Pretoria.
Police do not keep specific data on lynchings, saying they are categorized only as assault, attempted murder or murder, but a one-off analysis of murders by investigators in 2008-09 reveals street justice as a major problem.
The figures from that year defined 4.8 percent of the total 18,148 murders as “vigilantism”, a ratio that extrapolates to 4,000 people in Africa’s most advanced economy dying as a result of mob justice in the last five years.
Nor is it a confined to the economic heartland of Johannesburg and Pretoria.
In the Cape Town township of Khayelitsha, a complete breakdown in trust between public and police was blamed for what Western Cape Premier Helen Zille termed a “plague of vigilante killings”.
In March 2012, eight suspected criminals were killed by mobs, according to an inquiry into the broken policing in Khayelitsha, home to an estimated 1 million people.
The inquiry, which wrapped up in August, also detailed shocking failings by the police and courts.
In one incident, a woman in her 70s, Adelaide Ngongwana, was shot in the leg by officers pursuing a stolen car. Despite her injuries, Ngongwana was told she would have to walk to hospital for treatment.
In another, the trial of four men accused of stoning to death lesbian Zoliswa Nkonyana because she refused to use the men’s toilet in a shanty-town bar was postponed 45 times, delaying justice by four years.
It is with such failings in mind that the state allowed the Pistorius trial to be broadcast live, a South African first, demystifying the courts for ordinary people who tuned in to see a black female judge surrounded by computers and flat-screen televisions presiding over white male lawyers.
However, in the case of Pistorius, the live broadcast strategy may have backfired given that many have seen what they believe to be justice not being done.
“You tell people that the state was arguing that Oscar was guilty of murder but they didn’t prove it,” said Fhumulani Khumela, a court reporter for the Sowetan, a tabloid named after the massive Johannesburg township. “But they don’t care - they think Oscar got off a murder charge because he’s white, he’s got money and he’s got the big lawyers.”
For many, the storm of social media criticism aimed at Pistorius as he was carted off to the hospital wing of Pretoria’s main prison also contrasted starkly with the treatment dished out to other suspected or convicted killers.
“If you’re wealthy, you get lynched online,” said Gareth Newham, a crime and justice researcher at the Pretoria-based Institute for Security Studies. “If you’re poor, you get lynched in the street.”
Additional reporting by Mfuneko Toyana; Editing by Pascal Fletcher and David Stamp