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Oscar & His Affluenza

by Malini Mohana / Illustration by Alastair Laird / 17.04.2014

“You shot and killed her. Say it – ‘I shot and killed Reeva Steenkamp!’” – Advocate Gerrie Nel.

So starts every morning this week as you tune in to South Africa’s latest national pass time. You do give a shit. And you really should. The Oscar Pistorius case is, at its heart, the epitome of three key socio-political issues facing the country today: money, class and gender violence. So if you’re a politically and/or socially active individual with a vested interest in the verdict and its implications, this case is your dose of extravagantly overblown social commentary. However, let’s face it – most people are as politically active as that dude at work who complains about beggars and car guards.

So why does the gun runner’s tragedy draw us so? Because we love to watch the dramatic effects of Affluenza.

Affluenza is (sadly not my own clever punnage) an actual legal defense term, validated (arguably) by the United States’ legal system. The concept predicts that people from a privileged background will get served a very different kind of justice to someone less privileged. The ‘affliction’ overrides legality, justice and moral understanding to effectively immunise a certain group of people from the sobering effects of the Constitution. Pretty convenient.

If you haven’t been following the news about this innovative defense term, pay attention. There is a rich teenager by the name of Ethan Couch, who accidentally mowed down four people while under the influence behind the wheel of his dad’s car. The most important point here is that he is rich. Contrary to what you’d think, the idea of Affluenza cannot be used by the prosecution to dismantle inequality in court. No, it’s used by defense attorneys. The kid’s lawyers invoked the defense, stating that his richboy-ness is what prevented him from comprehending the seriousness of his crime! In other words, his incredibly wealthy parents were just too busy being incredibly wealthy around him that they forgot to teach him that killing people is totes not ok.

This kid was supposed to serve 20 years in prison. But his lawyers pulled this defense tactic and he walked free with a 10-year probation for culpable homicide. Probation. Because, you know, crappy parenting is great defense against murder. Provided your parents are rich; Couch’s father is currently footing the $450 000 bill for his son’s “rehabilitation programme,” which is keeping him out of jail.

The concept of Affluenza has numerous strains:

Makhaya Ntini’s rape controversy wasn’t initially taken seriously by Cricket South Africa, because of his “athlete-ness”. Last year, high school star football players from Steubenville raped an unconscious, underage girl for over three hours, videotaped the attack and then shared images of it on social media. One of these rapists is serving one year in juvie, the other is being released for “good behavior”, because “richboy-ness” and “football star-ness”. Even CNN weighed in and openly grieved about how the guilty verdict has ruined the poor rapists’ bright football futures – making FOX News look like an over-achiever. Then there was neighborhood watch coordinator, George Zimmerman, who shot and killed Trayvon Martin; poor Zimmerman thought Martin looked like a skollie, got scared and pulled the trigger. And of course, let’s not forget our favourite Waterkloof fourthose silly boys, lulz. You need just pay a modicum of attention to the world around you to know that the law is not just, nor is it an absolute.

Now pan back to Oscar. We all sit in front of Twitter or live stream the case, listening with fervid attention as a spectacular number of things are put to Mister Pistorius. We indulge ourselves in self-righteous voyeurism under the pretext of caring about the pursuit of justice. No judgment, of course. It takes the dedication of an entire nation for a murder charge to hit this level of popularity.

You may think it’s harsh, but consider the fact that the Marikana massacre (repeat: massacre), didn’t even get a fraction of the attention. I’m not saying Reeva’s justice should be cared about any less, but it’s never been about her. So let’s be honest about why this case is causing national shockwaves.

1.       Because Oscar is an athlete – “Ah, a national treasure, look how fast he runs!”

2.       Because Oscar is famous – “Ooh, he’s an inspiration, overcoming his disability and conquering the world!”

3.       Because Oscar is rich – “Of course his fear of being robbed is real! We live in South Africa, white genocide!”

Now deconstruct each point. Status, celebrity, wealth. He calls on his class and status to mobilise a power legal team and a good (Twitter-active) following. He calls on his inspirational athletic past to garner sympathy. And he pulls the ‘South Africa is dangerous’ card, because he’s a rich man in a poor country and it’s more than possible for an imaginary township guy to climb up a two story stepladder just to hide in his bathroom. That’s a triple whammy.

However, if you’ve been paying attention, you’ll have noticed that the case hasn’t been going well for Oscar. In the space of a week, he shifted his standpoint from ‘putative private defense’ to ‘involuntary action’ – a messy turn of events that left his legal team somewhat winded. If it continues on this axis, he would, at the very least, serve hard time for culpable homicide. But that’s not necessarily how South Africa’s social paradigm works. The man has a strain of Affluenza and it will protect him against certain inconvenient symptoms of the law. Perhaps the media coverage he gets will alter the differential diagnosis, but in a country where having rights is a privilege, only the privileged have rights.

As for the rest of us, our interest will not endure the test of time. Because it holds no depth. Because we aren’t in it for the long haul. Because “we only give pause when the blood is flowing” (yeah, I just quoted Tool). Perhaps it’s a slow day at work, or perhaps you’re just enjoying your daily dose of schadenfreude. But when the channels finally go quiet, we’ll pick up our peanuts, walk out via the back row and chat in distracted reflection of how intense the show was – absolving ourselves from actual commitment for the effort of a retweet.

If you think about it for a few extra seconds, you’ll understand that this case asks a lot more from you. You should give a shit about Oscar. It is, after all, the epitome of three different socio-political issues in South Africa today. You should care what happens in this case and, regardless of how it ends, you should think about the whys of the verdict. I can only hope that my informed predictions will be wrong, because I care less about Oscar-the-individual than what Oscar represents. Unlike scientific paradigms, our social ones can’t be unproven overnight. People get emotionally attached to the way they perceive others in the system. Your class, wealth, gender and race all add to that status. Being on the privileged end of the spectrum will make your words appear more credible, your plights more righteous and intensify the sympathy that you’re awarded. Ultimately, it’s a combination of these shiny factors in the Oscar trial that makes an entire nation tune in. And they’re the same shiny factors that could inoculate the man who shot his girlfriend from the law.

Father My lady, forgive him, for he knows not what he does”

*Illustration © Alastair Laird




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