The long awaited sentencing of South African Paralympian Oscar Pistorius for the killing of girlfriend Reeva Steenkamp in February 2013 was finally passed on 21st October 2014. Judge Thokosile Masipa sentenced Pistorius to five years of imprisonment for culpable homicide.

Oscar Pistorius
Pistorius mid-race at the London Olympics in 2012 // Credit: Will Clayton (Flickr)

The judgement has caused quite a controversy within South Africa and indeed, around the world, as the trial has been reported upon internationally since the start of the process in March 2013. But what does this sentence mean for the legitimacy of the South African justice system?

The fact that Pistorius has been convicted of culpable homicide rather than murder has left many legal experts with the concern that this could “open the door for systematic abuse of the legal system”. Judge Masipa said that the state had failed to prove that Pistorius had any intention of killing Reeva, instead arguing that the athlete had acted “negligently” believing that there was indeed an intruder in his Pretoria home.

Many have brought into question the athlete’s celebrity status and its clear impact on the proceedings, despite Judge Masipa stating that there should be no impression of there being “one law for the poor and disadvantaged and another for the rich and famous.” This, however, does not seem to be the case.

Throughout the trial period, the defence played upon Pistorius’ disability, arguing that the athlete would be broken “mentally or physically” by serving a prison sentence. Lead defence lawyer, Barry Roux, requested that Judge Masipa consider house arrest so as to remove Pistorius from any possible danger while incarcerated- a notion which was quickly dismissed.

Though Pistorius has been placed in the custody of Pretoria’s Kgosi Mampuru prison, the athlete is only expected to serve ten months of his five-year sentence. The family of Reeva Steenkamp seemed relieved by the verdict, with mother June stating that “he’s going to pay something”. This is a seemingly small victory for the family and many South Africans have taken to social media to express their anger at this display of injustice.

There is no doubt that Pistorius’ celebrity status heavily supported his case and may have contributed to the leniency with which he has been sentenced, despite Judge Masipa’s adamant stance that the race and wealth of the defendant would not affect the verdict. Many have compared Pistorius’ case to that of the South African rapper Molemo “Jub Jub” Maarohanye, who in 2012 was convicted of murder and attempted murder after driving into a group of school children whilst under the influence of cocaine and morphine.

Maarohanye received a 20-year sentence for what may be seen as gross negligence when Pistorius was presented with a mild 5-year sentence for firing a weapon through a bathroom door. Pistorius’ Olympic and Paralympic fame has somewhat protected him throughout the trial period. The South African justice system has proved its inability to be able to convict those who show no regard for the law, so long as they can repay the country in Olympic medals.

There is no arguing that Pistorius’ case has proved the South African justice system to be the laughing stock of the legal world.

By Dale Stassen