Wednesday, October 8, 2014

Osar Pistorius Trial 1: A Toxic Relationship?

For those of you who have followed the trial I thought I would post a series of issues that I addressed during the course of the trial. This was a letter to the Sunday Times that was published in their letters page on the 13th April 2014:
Oscar and Reeva: A Toxic and Abusive Relationship?

I refer to Redi Tlhabi's piece "When pain and cruelty wear loves's sweet smile" (6 April). In Redi's article, echoing similar sentiments expressed on the letters page of various newspapers as well as social media platforms, the conclusion is reached that Oscar and Reeva were in a toxic and abusive relationship. Redi, drawing lines from the conviction of Thato Kutumela for the horrific and brutal murder and rape of Zanele Khumalo, to the relationship between Oscar and Reeva, concludes that "... this was not love." This is a staggering and bold conclusion given that it is reached on the basis of only 4 out of almost 1800 messages between Oscar and Reeva over the span of their three month relationship.

The real problem with this conclusion is that it is based on messages in which there is neither tone nor context. As in any indirect form of communication (letter, journal entry, email, SMS, WhatsApp and so on), unless we have other information, we must imagine context and insert tone into the messages, but who is to say that our imagined context (which we must determine from our own context) and our inserted tone (which we must colour in our own voices) are correct? The attendant danger is that, listening to these messages, we assume that we have access to every communication that passed between these two people. Of course, we do not. We do not know what transpired between these two when they were not communicating indirectly, but directly: when they spoke to one another face-to-face to address the issues she raised in her messages. Perhaps these WhatsApp messages functioned as conversation starters that led to a frank and open conversation about their respective expectations from their relationship and from one another. This is how healthy relationships function: each party feeling able to express his / her own expectations from the other and assessing whether the other is able to meet those expectations.

In addition, It would be very unusual if Reeva truly felt in danger that she would not have confided in someone: her mother or a friend perhaps, but not one of these people were called to testify that she said something of this sort to them. Why? Because she never did. In contrast, the relationship between Thato and Zanele was characterized by violence and abuse that was apparent to her parents and friends, so much so that her father forbade him access to the house. When this father read from his daughter's journal we do not have to imagine context or insert tone. The toxic and abusive nature of this relationship that went before this journal entry is clearly obvious. In the case of Oscar and Reeva, this is not so.

We must be very cautious about reading our own preconceptions (inserting our own contexts and colouring the discourse in our own tone) into the lives of others. What relationship is completely devoid of any trace of anger, frustration, irritation or misunderstanding? No relationship that I know.

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