In the London 2012 Olympic and Paralympic games the South African athlete Oscar Pistorius was welcomed into the spotlight as he added to his expanding list of gold medals. He was just 17 years old when he won Paralympic gold medal at the 2004 Paralympic Games. Eight years later he became the first amputee to compete at an Olympic event. His talent helped him to find a place in the hearts of many. However, his rise in 2012 was followed by a shocking fall, as he returned to the spotlight as a criminal, guilty of culpable homicide (the equivalent of manslaughter).
In February 2013, Oscar Pistorius killed his girlfriend, South African model Reeva Steenkamp. On Valentine’s Day 2013, Pistorius’ neighbour heard four gunshots and screams. Pistorius had shot Steenkamp through a locked bathroom door. He claims that he mistook her for an intruder.
Pistorius was released from prison this week after serving less than one year of his five year sentence. Although the first possibility of him gaining an early release on parole had occurred in August, this original opportunity was denied to him. He will remain under house arrest at his uncle’s house, where he will serve the remainder of his sentence. His supporters are keen to emphasise that his sentence has not been reduced.
While he is under house arrest, he will have to adhere to strict conditions. He will not be allowed, guns, alcohol or drugs, he is also not allowed to leave the house at night. He has to take part in community service and continue psychotherapy sessions. He will also have to meet with Steenkamp’s family, when they are ready. This is seen as a vital part of the rehabilitation process. However, it does not seem fair that he is reunited with his family so soon, in a way that his victim never will be.
During the trial, the image of Pistorius as a talented athlete in his prime crumbled and in its place a new image came to the foreground, the image of Pistorius as an intimidating man and a gun enthusiast. In court, Steenkamp’s WhatsApp messages to Pistorius were read and they made it apparent that she was afraid of him. Adding to this threatening image was footage of Pistorius at a shooting range, evidence of his passion for gun violence. It became clear that he was a dangerous man and that Steenkamp had been aware of this fact before her death.
The horror that the public felt at the case that was revealed seemed to be mirrored by Pistorius, whose reactions in court were also indicative of his own horror at what had happened. He broke down into tears in court, appearing to be dismayed by what he had done. Despite this display of remorse, Steenkamp’s family do not appear to feel that Pistorius will ever truly repent for what he has done. Steenkamp’s family believe that the sentence is too light.
Some people continue to suggest that Pistorius is guilty of murder. They claim that that he would have realised his mistake in believing that an intruder had entered his house before the firing fourth shot. They believe that if he had stopped earlier, he could have prevented her death. Pistorius will face an appeal on the 3rd of November, by prosecutors claiming that he is guilty of murder rather than culpable homicide.
If Oscar Pistorius is held as an example of how violence domestic towards women and gun crime is viewed in South Africa, this could be a concern. To many people, just one year in prison does not appear to be a fair punishment for culpable homicide. Even the full five years would be hard to justify to Steenkamp’s family, especially when some people believe that Pistorius is guilty of murder. Regardless of the length of the sentence, it is possible that he would never gain forgiveness from everyone, no matter strongly how he may express his remorse.
Instead of focusing on the length of time spent in prison, we should focus on the way that the punishment leads to rehabilitation, both for the victim’s family and for the perpetrator. If rehabilitation becomes more central to the punishment of criminals, a society focused on improvement, rather than the harbouring of hatred, can be built. In Pistorius’ case, it is too soon to tell if the punishment will be effective. Perhaps Pistorius has been released too soon to allow Steenkamp’s family time to recover, but the terms of his house arrest could pave a path towards rehabilitation.
For many people, taking a life is an unforgivable offence. Despite this, it is clear that destroying another person’s life does not solve the problem. Even a life sentence for Pistorius would not bring back Steenkamp to her family, friends and fans. It is unlikely that this would even help her family to forgive Pistorius.