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Our ambiguous relationship with heroes

South Africa is a funny country. Probably like most though we are a little ambiguous when it comes to our heroes. And we tend to love a victim.

One could easily argue that President Zuma rose to his position partly because he was seen to have become a victim of a nasty political conspiracy concocted by 'the clever ones' within the African National Congress (ANC). That long and winding story caused the nation a dramatic pause recently when the so-called ' spy tapes' were released.

The Supreme Court of Appeal (SCA) made some damning findings against the National Directorate of Public Prosecutions and the manner in which it has operated. The ruling was not only a triumph for the rule of law and the independence of the judiciary, but was the result of an extraordinary collapse of Zuma's case in opposing the release of the tapes. His advocate Kemp J Kemp was ultimately forced to admit that there was no compelling reason why the tapes should not be released; extraordinary because his client, the president, has been fighting for years to keep them out of the public domain.

Quite how one explains this collapse of a defence is hard to tell except perhaps as any lawyer would, namely that even Kemp J Kemp could no longer defend the indefensible and offer an argument without merit, no matter his legal prowess. What the fall-out will be remains to be seen. Yet the tapes may well show that there was no rational reason in law to drop the charges against Zuma. That may open a Pandora's box of its own.

But leaving the political digression aside, it is a well-known fact that our heroes can divide us. Former South African cricket captain, Hansie Cronje, is a fine example of that. Was he a hero who stumbled or a powerful villain, prepared to sell out our national pride for a leather jacket and thousands of dollars? Surely not? One suspects there will never be closure on that issue despite the King Commission and Cronje's untimely death.

So we have a complicated relationship with our heroes and with those who have stumbled. Are they capable of redemption and if so, how? Former Springbok rugby hero, Joost van der Westhuizen, equally lived his travails in the full glare of the public, with redemption possibly coming through his suffering now induced by motor neuron disease.

Since Oscar Pistorius was arrested in February last year for the murder of his girlfriend, Reeva Steenkamp, opinion has similarly been divided. He remained a hero to some and a villain to others. To some he was interested only in fast cars and fast girls, with a temper second to none. To others he was the boy who made good despite his disability, able to rise above his adversity. After the incident, the state went for the jugular; premeditated murder, alternatively murder for which culpable homicide would be a competent verdict.

Forty-two days of evidence, sobbing and many legal panels and a dedicated television channel later, the verdict finally came last week. Judge Thokozile Masipa's judgment is now commonly discussed in supermarket queues and around dinner tables.

The debates have happened ad nauseam; was Judge Masipa correct in her application of the law and her interpretation of dolus eventualis, a Latin term now on everybody's lips? For those of us rusty lawyers, even whipping out the criminal law tomes of Burchell and Hunt or Snyman was not enough to jog the full memory of law school and years gone by. But, legal opinion is divided and there have been some like Judge Dennis Davis who have openly said he empathised with Judge Masipa. The law, as all lawyers know only too well, is not an exact science.

But, the more disturbing fall-out of the judgment has been that Judge Masipa has been assigned bodyguards after several threats against her person. Not only have physical threats been made against her but several frankly racist comments have been hurled in her direction. The story is sadly all too commonplace in South Africa. Judge Masipa is black and therefore if she erred, it is because she is less competent than her white colleagues, one of whom really ought to have been assigned this case from the start. Sound familiar?

This subliminal, and often not so subliminal, racist thinking has prompted some civil society organisations to issue a statement supporting Judge Masipa and the rule of law. The principle really is quite simple. While we may think that justice was not served and that Pistorius had the intention to kill, a court has delivered a verdict.

We may not agree with it and if Judge Masipa was found to have made an error in law, the appeal process will take care of that. Judges are fallible and make mistakes. In 2008 Judge Chris Nicholson dismissed corruption charges against Zuma in a judgment that surprised most people. His judgment was summarily over-turned by the Supreme Court of Appeal and a full bench ruled that Judge Nicholson was wrong when he found that the decision to prosecute Zuma on fraud and corruption charges was invalid. That appeal was too late, however, and paved the way for Zuma to become president. Judge Nicholson may well have changed the course of South African history.

Mistakes are made and they are not the preserve of a particular race. If it is found that Judge Masipa erred in law it would be a pity given the manner in which she presided over the trial; thoughtfully and without fanfare despite the intense scrutiny of the international media.

Of course, a life has been lost and the public has every right to expect justice not only to be done but also to be seen to be done. That might well be the reason that the culpable homicide verdict is so hard for some to swallow.

To attribute that disappointment to the judge's incompetence simply because she is black is racist and it ought to be named as such. Threats against her person have no place in a society in which the rule of law is the organising principle, no matter how strongly emotions run.

Pistorius is yet to be sentenced and no doubt the State will ask for a sentence fitting the crime. It does so on behalf of all of us, but also on behalf of Steenkamp's parents for their unbearable, irreplaceable loss. The State may also then appeal the judgment, which would be fitting too for clarity's sake. Of course, it may decide not to because these matters are not as simple as they are made out to be.

For Pistorius redemption may never come in the eyes of the public and that will again display our difficult relationship with heroes who ultimately have feet of clay.

Judith February is a senior associate at the Institute for Security Studies (ISS).

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