The Oscar Pistorius murder case has everything a tabloid junkie could ask for. A celebrated athlete who overcame a severe physical disability to win an Olympic medal is accused of the murder of his beautiful girlfriend. Convicted of “culpable homicide,” the equivalent in the United States of manslaughter, he was sentenced to five years in jail.
After serving one year, Pistorius has been released on parole. The girlfriend’s family is protesting that the sentence is too lenient, and the prosecutors are appealing the judge’s finding of “culpable homicide” rather than murder. (Prosecutors as well as defendants may appeal in South Africa.) Meanwhile Pistorius is staying at his uncle’s luxurious residence in an expensive Pretoria suburb.
The episode provides insights into contemporary South Africa. The country is notorious for violent crime, and especially for violence against women, often by their domestic partners. South Africa has one of the highest levels of rape in the world. There is no dispute that Pistorius killed his girlfriend, yet was sentenced to only five years and was released on parole after serving one year.
However, the story is a bit more complicated than the famous-athlete-gets-away-with-murder narrative.
Pistorius and his late girlfriend are white. So, too, were the prosecuting and defense attorneys. (There is no jury in South Africa). The judge was a black female. Only twenty-one years after the end of apartheid, the judge’s race and gender attracted little or no comment in the South African media.
Pistorius’s release after serving one year is in accordance with standard South African practice. A person convicted and sentenced to jail for five years or less is eligible for parole on good behavior after serving one-sixth of his/her sentence.
Corrections policy in South Africa is to encourage paroled prisoners to work. The South African Olympic committee is reported by the media as saying that Pistorius is not prohibited from training and competing. There is also media speculation that Pistorius may work with handicapped children. The corrections department mandates that Pistorius undergo “psychotherapy” while paroled.
So, in a country with high levels of violence against women, the corrections regime is remarkably enlightened. That conclusion assumes, of course, that Pistorius is guilty of “culpable homicide,” and not murder.