Shuffling around the exercise compound in a grim penitentiary, a bearded young man, humiliatingly clad in baggy orange overalls stamped with the word ‘CORRECTIONAL’, draws on a cigarette.
Virtually the only white prisoner among hundreds of black inmates serving time for every imaginable crime, Oscar Pistorius has become a tormented, self-pitying figure.
A born-again Christian, he now spends hour upon hour in his spartan cell, reading his Bible and praying for forgiveness from the millions who once revered him as a Paralympian icon.
Spanning four parts and almost six hours, The Trials Of Oscar Pistorius promises to ‘provide new perspectives’ on the murder. Pistorius (right has never admitted he he deliberately murdered his girlfriend Reeva Steenkamp (left)
This is not because he has finally admitted that he deliberately murdered his girlfriend Reeva Steenkamp.
Seven years after he shot the model four times, as she cowered behind the bathroom door in his luxury apartment, he still holds to the wholly unconvincing story he peddled in court: that he mistook her for an intruder.
No, the narcissistic Pistorius is desperate for redemption for selfish reasons. He cannot reconcile himself with the reality that he must live out his days as a convicted murderer; nor that the family he one day hopes to have will grow up thinking of their father as a killer.
Now utterly unrecognisable as the inspirational athlete whose lower limbs were amputated when he was a baby — but who proved that anything is achievable given sufficient courage and determination — this is the first detailed description of the legendary ‘Blade Runner’ as he is today.
Provided by his former headmaster at Pretoria Boys’ High School, Bill Schroder, who recently accepted Pistorius’s invitation to visit him in prison, and by an uncle who also sees him regularly, it emerges in a documentary series about the fallen hero, to be screened on BBC iPlayer from next Saturday and at a later date on BBC2.
Spanning four parts and almost six hours, The Trials Of Oscar Pistorius promises to ‘provide new perspectives’ on the murder — on Valentine’s Day, 2013 — ‘giving us a deeper and closer look at one of the world’s most remarkable sporting figures and the South Africa he grew up in’.
Director Daniel Gordon says: ‘The story of Oscar Pistorius is remarkable in its complexity. It’s at once inspirational and harrowing, and provides a lens of insight into a breadth of issues — from gender-based violence to disability rights, racial inequality and media frenzy.’
A ‘woke’ approach in tune with the times, some might think. This week, however, even before the first episode was shown, the series has already become mired in controversy.
It began when the BBC tweeted a two-minute promotional trailer, omitting to mention Reeva, 29, by name and referring to her simply as Pistorius’s ‘girlfriend’.
Many thought this appallingly demeaning. ‘A total failure to even name the woman he killed. Shame on the BBC,’ said domestic abuse campaigner David Challen. Another critic called the promo ‘shockingly ill-judged’.
Historian Dr Fern Riddell weighed in, saying: ‘No one says Reeva Steenkamp’s name in this trailer, or speaks for her. In seven years, with all that’s supposedly changed about editorial practice and how we talk about these stories, she’s just back to being the unnamed girlfriend.’
However, as I have discovered, the firestorm over this controversial series is only just beginning.
Reeva’s maternal half-sister, Simone Cowburn (pictured) is angry that he Trials Of Oscar Pistorius, puts him in a favourable light while her sister barely gets a mention
Speaking to me exclusively from her home in Port Elizabeth this week, Reeva’s maternal half-sister, Simone Cowburn, denounced the very idea of making the series, particularly as Pistorius is presented as a pitiable fallen hero, brought low by the pressures of being a global star and his painfully difficult upbringing.
She is also angry that the majority of those who took part have their flags planted in the Pistorius camp, while murdered Reeva is reduced to a bit-part in the drama — one of a string of identikit, blonde, ‘It Girls’ the athlete romanced.
‘I haven’t yet seen this documentary but from what I hear it’s just all about him, not about Reeva. It’s crazy, just crazy,’ Ms Cowburn, 55, told me from the remote farm where she lives with stepfather, Barry, 76, and mother, June, 74.
‘Oscar is obviously trying to get out of prison as soon as he can [he is serving a 15-year sentence but can apply for parole in 2023], and he and his family probably think this documentary will help him.
‘I do accept that he’s sorry for what he did. He wants forgiveness, and we are a very Christian family, so it’s not like we are going to hate him for ever. But he has taken my sister’s life, and he took it out of jealousy, or whatever else motivated him.
‘How do you forgive someone who has taken your sister’s life away in such a horrible way?
‘We all loved Reeva so much. My parents are very upset by it [the documentary]. The murder has completely broken them. I watch every day how this has taken their lives away. Seven years have passed and I still lie in bed at night sometimes and listen to them crying themselves to sleep.
‘They are just different people. There’s the people they were before and the people they are now, and the hurt they are going through is awful. They used to go dancing, and my mother would go on hunts. Now they’ve got no zest for life.’ She pauses and adds: ‘Then this [the series] happens and it brings it all up again. I don’t understand what it is supposed to achieve. Maybe Oscar will try to get out of prison earlier. But really, what difference will it make? His life is over anyway.’
Last night Tania Koen, the attorney for Reeva’s parents, said they had been asked to appear in the documentary but declined because it was yet another film focusing on Pistorius, not their daughter.
BBC trailer of The Trials of Oscar Pistorius: Reeva’s family say Oscar is likely to be trying to get out of prison as soon as he can and probably thinks this documentary will help him
‘They haven’t seen the film yet but they were traumatised by the trailer,’ she added.
‘They would like a documentary to be made about Reeva, who was campaigning against all forms of abuse and was actually going to give a talk about it in a school on the day she died.
‘Why is it always about the perpetrator and not the victim?’
Director Mr Gordon said although Mr and Mrs Steenkamp had not taken part, they had referred the filmmakers to friends of Reeva, who appear along with her aunt. He added that the couple were kept updated on the project.
However, as this juggernaut of a series unfolds — interspersing home-video of Pistorius’s boyhood with stirring images of his Paralympic triumphs and his sobbing courtroom meltdowns — the most strident views come from his friends and family.
A cabal of his supporters — including his uncle, Arnold, brother Carl, a female cousin, his former sprinting coach, his PR adviser and a plethora of friends — speak on his behalf, inferring that he would never have knowingly shot the woman he loved.
Their clear aim is to convince us the Blade Runner has been wronged and deserves redemption.
They are augmented by various forensic and psychological experts, some of whom were enlisted by his legal team to try to prove his innocence.
In one lengthy diversion, an Icelandic mother, who wrote to Pistorius for advice after her son was born with no feet and received a personal visit from him, waxes about him reverentially.
‘It was like a huge rock star was coming to see us,’ she coos, against a backdrop of a smiling Pistorius playing with the little boy.
‘He was very sweet, very polite; always very calm. It was like we had met an old friend . . . he is so affectionate and kind.’
Though the series flashes back and forth between key moments in Pistorius’s life, the narrative thread is that of a troubled but spirited boy who surmounts all odds to achieve greatness, but ultimately fails to conquer his inner demons — with fatal consequences.
The beginning of his story would touch the stoniest heart. Born without fibulas in both legs, when he was 11 months old, a surgeon decided his mobility would be better if they were amputated below the knee.
His elder brother recalls sitting with their mother, Sheila, as she took a poignant last look at his ‘precious toes’.
From the moment he left the operating theatre, however, she was determined that his disability would be no impediment; an approach shared by his father, Henke — a tough disciplinarian who refused to accept his son was disadvantaged and encouraged him to play with reckless abandon.
Family videos show Oscar scrambling around the muddy garden on his ‘stumps’, swimming and playing rugby in the school third team.
When he was six, however, his parents divorced, and their mother raised him, his brother and sister in a crime-plagued neighbourhood.
In the documentary, Pistorius’s apologists place much significance on this, saying he would have regarded himself as the family’s protector from an early age — hence the haste with which he reached for his gun and fired through the bathroom door when (as he would have it) he mistook Reeva for an intruder.
When Pistorius was 14 he suffered a second major emotional trauma. Aged only 43, his mother — a glamorous and vivacious woman — died of liver disease. According to one journalist, he has been searching for a woman to replace her ever since.
Some of his lookalike girlfriends are interviewed in the documentary. To Jenna Edkins, who dated him for five years, he was a gentleman who ‘never lifted a finger’ against her.
However, Samantha Taylor, his partner directly before Reeva, recalls how he was ‘stressed most of the time’ and prone to outbursts of temper, leaving her with a cut mouth after one ugly altercation.
The series has already become mired in controversy. It began when the BBC tweeted a two-minute promotional trailer, omitting to mention Reeva, 29, by name and referring to her simply as Pistorius’s ‘girlfriend’
She finished with Pistorius. That evening they had planned to go to an awards ceremony so, looking for a replacement, he invited Reeva — whom he had met at a car-racing track.
Three months later, she was dead.
In the documentary, his brother claims they became ‘infatuated with one another’ and Pistorius wanted to settle down with Reeva, who reminded him of their mother; the inference being that he would never have knowingly killed her.
We also hear the views of Scott Roder, a U.S forensics expert hired by Pistorius before the trial. ‘When he talked about Reeva his eyes grew really wide and you could tell she meant such a lot to him,’ he says.
Roder, who re-enacted the night of the shooting with Pistorius’s cooperation to establish the veracity of his claim to have shot Reeva by mistake, insists it was plausible. He uses computer graphics of the murder scene to explain why he drew this conclusion.
Pistorius says he and Reeva went to bed at his Johannesburg home. Shortly afterwards, unable to sleep, he got up to cover up LED lights on the stereo and heard a noise from the bathroom.
Believing someone had forced their way in, he claims, he went to fetch his gun, shouted a warning, then opened fire — unaware that in the 25 seconds or so that it had taken him to get the weapon, Reeva had gone to the toilet, and it was she who had made the noise.
His story may have convinced the trial judge, who deemed him guilty only of ‘culpable homicide’, and jailed him for five years. However, it didn’t wash with the South African appeal court. In 2017, he was convicted of murder and his sentence was tripled.
This outcome confirmed what many observers believed: that he and Reeva had quarrelled violently that night, and he had killed her. She had previously expressed fears about his frightening temper in texts.
By now, you may be wondering if anyone in this unbalanced reappraisal speaks out against Pistorius and for Reeva.
Well, it isn’t entirely one-sided. Reeva’s aunt Kim Martin attests to her niece’s sweet nature and reveals how she has since learned that Pistorius was ‘very volatile’ and ‘very disturbed . . . a ticking time-bomb waiting to go off’.
A born-again Christian, Pistorius spends hours reading his Bible and praying for forgiveness from the millions who once revered him as a Paralympian icon (pictured)
But it is deputy public prosecutor Andrea Johnson who provides the most damning summation of Pistorius’s character.
‘He might be a remarkable human being for what he overcame, but I think it caught up with him and became his downfall,’ she says. ‘Because what the prosecution saw was an arrogant individual. On the night he killed, he was his true self.’
Her words would provide a fitting ending to the documentary. Instead, it closes with his former headmaster describing how Pistorius phoned him from prison to offer his condolences on hearing that his wife had died. It was then he asked Mr Schroder to visit him.
‘He doesn’t look too bad, but he has grown a beard, which I don’t think has done him justice,’ Mr Schroder says.
‘He’s smoking — he didn’t mention it, but I could smell it when I gave him a hug. He sort of intimated that he didn’t think he would run again [Pistorius is now 33]. He was very emotional. He kept saying to me he just wanted forgiveness.
‘He’s desperate to get this . . . but he’ll never get it, I don’t think. I said: “Do you know what? The only forgiveness you will ever get is to forgive yourself.” ’
Finally, we hear again from Pistorius’s Uncle Arnold.
As he reflects on the cruel twists of fate that have beset Pistorius, one wonders if he thinks of the terrible end Reeva suffered, trapped in that bathroom as bullets from the gun Pistorius called his ‘Zombie stopper’ pierced the door.
But then, she is not the protagonist in this tragedy. Though proved beyond doubt to be a murderer, the Blade Runner is now racing for redemption — and still commands the stage.
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