In the crucible with Oscar Pistorius


In the crucible with Oscar Pistorius

Starting today, Reeva Steenkamp's killer will serve the remaining six years of his sentence under ‘community correction'. ANNELIESE BURGESS, the Pistorius family's former media manager, reflects for the first time on the court case and the rapacious worldwide interest that consumed her for almost four years.


I MET Oscar's uncle, Arnold, in a coffee shop in Johannesburg. 

An intermediary had approached me the day before about handling the media for the family and my first, visceral instinct was to decline the offer. The job seemed too big and potentially radioactive for my small communications company. 

I held no torch for Pistorius. I had never been a passionate supporter or even a moderate fan. Still, I had been dumbstruck when I heard the tail end of a radio report on the shooting as I walked into my office in Riebeek-Kasteel on February 15 almost 11 years ago.

Living in a sports-mad country like South Africa, however, it would have been impossible not to be aware of his global celebrity and astonishing athletic achievements.

My first response on hearing about the horrifying tragedy, probably like most other South Africans, was complete shock. Oscar’s version of events — that he had mistaken Reeva for an intruder — sounded desperately and depressingly plausible to me from the moment it was reported.

On a gut level, it seemed too simplistic that this young man, who had conquered the world with his single-minded commitment to running without legs, simply snapped and killed his girlfriend in a fit of rage.

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As South Africans, a very real subtext of our everyday existence is a genuine fear of violent crime. It is part of our fabric in a way that people living in safer societies cannot begin to understand. 

The violence of apartheid gave way to a brutalised society where violent home invasions, highway shootings and vehicle hijackings don’t even make the news any more unless there’s some uniquely murderous angle that sets them apart from all the others.

Oscar’s version of an accidental shooting in a state of panic was believable to me because it had happened before, in other circumstances, to other people. 

I still am not quite sure why I took the job. Thinking back, it might have been a story that my father once told me of how he had sat pointing a shotgun in naked fear at his locked bedroom door after being awoken by a bang in the house (which turned out to be a golf bag falling over in the passage). 

In retrospect, I am not sure I would have signed up had I known the insanity and trauma of trying to manage the biggest media story in the world for longer than four years.

The first day of the trial, on June 4, 2013, is seared in my memory.

Trail begins

That morning, the Pistorius family gathered in the kitchen. The tension was thick like syrup. The far-off clang of the massive iron garden gate, followed by the soft thud of the front door, signalled the arrival of another aunt, uncle or cousin.

Coffee and rusks were set out on the table.

The rock of tension in the pit of my stomach was professional, not personal. As I observed the people in the room, it struck me that I was the only one there not personally invested in how this tragedy would ultimately end. This was a professional assignment. For everyone else, it was profoundly personal.

I stood on the balcony, on the edge of the tight family circle. It felt appropriate to keep my distance. I was the only person in the room not tied to Oscar by genealogy.

I remember Oscar coming down the stairs. He clearly hadn't slept. He seemed jittery. He wore a dark suit but his tie hung loosely around his neck. I watched as his uncle walked over to him, put his hands on his shoulders and looked him in the eyes. I couldn't hear what was being said but the image of these two men on that morning more than a decade ago remains imprinted on my mind. It was so laden with meaning that it almost hurt to watch as Arnold tied Oscar’s tie, pulling the knot up to his chin and tucking the flyaway bits into his buttoned-up jacket.

Arnold, the family patriarch, would pull his family through the next 18 months of court appearances and harrowing media interest — fuelled by blow-by-blow live television coverage.

Oscar, the former Olympic champion, was reduced to a boy with trembling hands that morning, and Arnold told me later what he said to him when he was fixing his tie — “the only way through this is one step at a time".

Then, suddenly, the moment was broken as the day moved into gear and we all assumed our roles in the first of what would eventually end up being more than 60 court days.

His sister packed a bag in case his bail was revoked. The husbands of his four cousins were assigned as drivers and body guards — their job was to get Oscar in and out of court. I was to go ahead and assess the media situation.

The entrance to the magistrate's court in downtown Pretoria leads directly off the pavement up a flight of shallow steps. The glass doors work like a twirling turnstile. It was a nightmare environment for someone with prosthetic legs to manoeuvre if he couldn't see where to put his feet.

The family had been spooked by their media experience during Oscar’s first court appearance after the shooting, and there was much concern about how best to get Oscar into court. Apart from the possibility of losing his balance and falling into the media crush, a call from a credible media source two days earlier had compounded concerns around safety.

My source had received a raft of what she believed to be credible threats against Oscar’s life. A highly placed government spokesperson, a personal friend whom I had called some days earlier to get his sense of the public mood, advised me that the family should hire professional bodyguards. “I have never experienced anything like this,” he said. “The mood is ugly and it's unpredictable. I wouldn’t care about how it looks — make sure the guy isn’t taken out by a crazy.”

I discussed all of this some days prior with Arnold. He was dead set against bodyguards. “We will handle this as a family; everyone must do their bit."

Media tsunami

Given his fragile emotional state and his pathological issues about personal safety, Oscar was kept out of the planning. 

The public relations part of me was deeply relieved that Arnold had taken such a decisive stance on the bodyguard issue. I knew how negatively it would play out in the media and how it would compound the image already being constructed in the public space — of Oscar, the unrepentant rich celebrity. A picture of Oscar flanked by the proverbial men in black would, I knew, be splashed across the world.

We had lodged a request with the court to allow Oscar to be brought in through the back entrance and were surprised when the request was granted the night before.

Possibly, the unprecedented scale of the media interest was dawning on the authorities too — an entire street next to the court had already been taken over by broadcast vans and satellite trucks, and on my drive-by the previous evening the whole precinct was lit up with TV journalists doing live crossings. For me, it was the first real taste of the media tsunami that would engulf us as the court case got under way.

That morning, I walked up the side street towards the court to find  satellite trucks humming, bored technicians smoking, the odd correspondent doing a piece to camera. Then I turned the corner and the street in front of the court was a growling, seething mass of cameras. Waiting. On a smaller scale, the scene was repeated at the back entrance.

I went inside to make a call to report the scene. By this time, the car carrying Oscar had left Waterkloof and the decision had been taken to use the front entrance. The feeling was that waiting to gain access through the back entrance, where the gate to the road had now been unexpectedly closed, posed a greater risk than going through the front door, where it was hoped Oscar’s cousins would be able to keep him upright and moving in the media melee.


Extraordinary scenes

A high-profile local journalist saw me and came over to chat, immediately segueing into a conversation about how Oscar would be coming into the building. I told the person we had applied for permission to use the back entrance but that no decision had yet been taken and that she should keep it to herself. It was the first of many small tests I would conduct with various journalists to help me figure out whom I could trust.

I immediately watched her Twitter timeline light up on my phone saying that “a reliable source” had just informed her that the back entrance would be used to bring Oscar into court. It was the first taste of the rapacious, competitive coverage that turned mild-mannered journalists into raving lunatics. I never again trusted that particular journalist with even the most mundane information. Still, I hoped the opportunistic (and rather pointless) tweet would help to draw some of the media heat from the front of the building.

Ten minutes later, I received a text that the car was approaching the building. I watched from inside as Pistorius and his cousins waded through a crushing sea of journalists, getting stuck for a moment in the revolving glass door. A camera flew through the air, smashing to the ground before Oscar.

Thick with tension

As Oscar walked in, the air thickened even further in the already impossibly crowded and stuffy courtroom. As with the first court appearance, the media was allowed into the court before proceedings began and there was that strange relentless hum of cameras flashing and clicking without pause that would become the soundtrack to my life.

Oscar stood in the dock with his head bowed. His brother and sister were beside him, their three heads almost touching.

From where I was sitting on the first-row bench, the image before me was utterly startling. An impenetrable bank of cameras and journalists.

In the front, hunching low to give those behind them a view, I watched two British broadcast journalists doing commentary into microphones — their eyes scanning the family benches, searching for something to say. I felt some of what one of the aunts would later term “a feeling of nakedness”, a sense of being “emotionally undressed”.

Then, finally, after more than an hour's delay, the magistrate appeared. The trial was postponed to August to give the State time to complete their investigation.  Oscar's bail of R1 million remained in place. I saw Oscar's sister unclench her fists in her lap, two shredded tissues lying limp in her palms.

It is almost 11 years later, and writing this I can still feel how utterly overwhelmed I felt that day. The media frenzy would not lose its intensity in the many months and years to come — a ravenous vulture that could not be sated. It consumed me, at times, to the point of collapse (and often despair at questionable ethics employed by journalists).

Today I am back on the other side of the fence — a working journalist. But strangely, it is only now that it feels as if the circle of that experience has finally closed. Oscar will serve the remaining six years of his sentence at home under strict conditions and supervision of the Department of Correctional Services until it expires in December 2029.

* An earlier version of this story stated that the court appearance on the 4th of June 2013 was a bail hearing, whereas it was the first day of the trial. The bail hearing had taken place on the 22nd of February. 

♦ VWB ♦

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