The Curious Disability of Society



“He won gold in the Paralympics in 2004. It wasn’t enough. He was 18 years of age, and determined to make his mark in the Olympics – the real competition, against men with real legs.” Gertruida is in her lecture-mode, her tone of voice grave, knowledgeable and informative. The patrons at the bar know this is not the time to interrupt or ask questions. “One has to remember he’s a born competitor. He only started running at the age of 16, because he tried to rehabilitate a knee he injured while playing rugby. Imagine that? Playing rugby with no legs. It makes you think.”

“Now remember: his legs were amputated at 11 months of age. His parents divorced when he was six. To compete with normal kids was a natural instinct and he showed athletic promise early. He boxed, wrestled and played cricket. One can assume his disability served to encourage him to prove himself.

“Now, psychologists will tell you this is more common than you’d like to think. Many disabled people find a way to the top by sheer grit and determination. Part of the picture is overcoming insecurity. You have to accept who and what you are, and then find ways to compensate for the specific handicap you have. Combine a genetic disorder, an unhappy childhood and obvious physical deformity, and there are a thousand reasons why somebody might just give up and allow life to sweep them along. But not this chap. He used his heartaches to be the fuel in the furnace to build up steam. He was going places – despite what Life dished out to him.

“To do that, he learnt to trust his own judgement. What other people thought or said, didn’t matter. Initially he was viewed as a curiosity on the track, but soon his determination started paying off. The small-town nobody became a part of Olympic history. Reporters loved his story. Disabled people right across the world were encouraged to rise above adversity by his efforts. He became a hero…

“But deep down, the scars of the past remained, like they always do in all of us. The struggle for so-called normality. The broken home. The loss of his parents. Maybe that was the source of a gnawing insecurity – or maybe his achievements compensated for them. In the end we get to the 12th of February. He found the love of his life. Oh, I’m sure he knew his athletic ability won’t last. No athlete goes on forever.  But love…now there’s something to accompany you on the journey through life. This was something he couldn’t bear losing. This was something he’d want to protect with his life.”

Servaas holds up a hand. “No, Gertruida, you can’t be sure of all that. You’re guessing.”

“You’re right, Servaas. I am guessing. But in contrast to public opinion, I’m trying to paint a different picture.”

“You’re still assuming things you have no right to.” Servaas can be extremely obstinate.

“Okay.” Gertruida sighs. “Let’s assume then. Let’s assume we have to do with a fragile personality that’s used to losing the most important people in his life. He has achieved the impossible on the athletic track. Lets assume he’s looking ahead at the future, and will lay down his life to protect the love he’s discovered. And lets assume he picked up the gun, just like he said, to protect the woman in his bed.

“Lets assume he fires off the shots, and turns back to talk to her. Let’s assume the horror of the realisation of what he’d done. And let’s assume it is the one single moment that’ll haunt him for ever more.”

“Too many holes in that argument, Gertruida. Why didn’t he call the police or security people. Why didn’t he wake her up first? Why didn’t he know she’s not in bed?” Servaas shakes his head in disgust. “The pieces in your puzzle doesn’t fit.”

“Sure, Servaas. We have the luxury of thinking and analysing and being terribly clever. People around the world have mulled over this for endless hours.

“But he didn’t have the time. He acted. He got out of the starting blocks so fast, he completely forgot to check the basics. And he made the most disastrous mistake of all. Why? I’ll tell you why. I’m assuming it was a subconscious, automatic action to protect his love. He panicked. His thought processes stalled. He became the caveman, protecting his possessions. He stormed the lion with a club and wrecked his life.

“And once again, he lost what he desperately wanted to preserve. Broken home, dead mother, murdered love. And that’s why you saw the face in the court. He’s devastated – only this time, he was responsible for the loss.”

“You’re a good Christian, Getruida. You look at the bright side, searching for a nice answer to a terrible tragedy. I respect that, but I’ll wait for the court case.” Servaas isn’t convinced, but some of the things Gertruida said, gnaws at his conscience. “You can’t possibly say he wasn’t responsible for her death, though.”

“Sadly, no. He’ll have to face the wrath of the law for that. You can’t kill somebody and then argue innocence. All I’m trying to do, is to understand, that’s all.

“What I don’t understand, is the public outcry. If this was just another horrible mistake or some family tragedy, CNN and BBC  and Sky wouldn’t have bothered. But because of the man he is, and because of the woman she was, it has become world news.

“Society loves drama. They dress it up and dissect it. They love to see a hero fall. Sometimes I’m convinced about a universal disability – we just don’t do compassion any more. Find him guilty, if you want. Send him to jail, if you like. If it was premeditated – let him feel the force of law. But if this is a case of an insecure man who panicked and made a disastrous decision…well, then I feel for him. He is guilty of shooting the girl. No question. But what was in his heart when he pulled the trigger? And that, my friends, is what the judge must rest his sentence on.”

“I don’t know, Gertruida…”

“Look, Servaas, you’ve made up your mind. It’s your right to do so. I’m just saying Oscar isn’t the only disabled person in the accused dock right now. We – all of us – are suffering from a variety disabilities right now. We don’t know enough. We can’t see the suffering of the two families. We don’t want to hear any other explanations. And we avoid feeling the pain of those directly involved in the tragedy.

“They say you must walk a mile in somebody else’s shoes to understand him. Society, Servaas, has never balanced on those blades. That’s their disability. They didn’t hear the roar of the crowd in London when he ran that race. They can’t hear the scream of pain when he stands, head bowed, in front of the cameramen. And society – with nothing better to do – will rather condemn than be compassionate. That’s our disability, Servaas, and there’s no prosthesis for that.”


32 thoughts on “The Curious Disability of Society

  1. iread1966

    Ek is versot op jou tong in die kies aktualiteit, mooi so! Boek boek nogmaals boek asb en ek is eerste opi lys van getekendes groot Skrywer Guru
    Sent from my BlackBerry® wireless device

    1. Amos van der Merwe Post author

      So true. There are so many issues: the have/have not divide; the senseless politics, the failure to reach out across cultural lines; the rehashing of the past, so many more. We really have to take a hard, long look at ourselves..

  2. Celiwe

    freak accident that can not fit into the puzzle can happen. I had a near miss accident that I was not going to argue and no one could have believed me. I had my ex-boyfriend 2month old baby in my arms. While going to the bedroom to get the diapers, his head almost hit the door frame, luckily I was able to move an inch away the frame ended up hitting my elbow, it hurt so bad, if his head had hit that frame obviously the results could have been fatal on his small skull. the question how could I have argued that, there was no way anybody could have believed me. Motive for murder could have been maybe jealousy or whatever the prosecutor could have thought of. The morale is we should be objective sometimes accidents you can not even explain yourself can happen. It almost happened to me, so I know

    1. Amos van der Merwe Post author

      Thank you, Celiwe, for underlining something so important. You know what happened, and that is good enough. But people are quick to judge…and then the explanation sounds so lame. You’ve put your finger on exactly the right spot – I hope many readers see your comment..

  3. newsferret

    For the benefit of your foreign readers all in English. I can possibly agree with Gertruida up to the first shot was fired, but after that I agree with Servaas – let us wait for justice to take its course. I think there is a lot of lying and imagination that will become pitfalls, but that is Advocate Nel’s concern. Again a brilliant piece from your key board.

    1. Amos van der Merwe Post author

      Absolutely agree with you. In the end, truth must be the only judge – and I have confidence enough in the judiciary and human nature, that we’ll get the real story in the end…Thanks, I appreciate your words…

  4. colonialist

    IF it is shown that his version is correct and the charge is moderated, there will still be wholesale condemnation. This will be from people who have forgotten the occasions when they made an error of judgment which nearly – but not quite – had serious consequences. I don’t believe there is anyone who has never made such error. One is seldom condemned for those – but if the fates step in and the consequences do eventuate it is seen as totally different. Why?

    1. Amos van der Merwe Post author

      I agree about the serious consequences. Whatever happens, his life, as it used to be, is over. And you’re right: we all make mistakes and we certainly all had close shaves. Mostly, I think close shaves are warnings, telling the captain to change course, there are rocks ahead. It’s when the hand on the steering is sluggish, that the other sailors whoop and dance. I think it’s instinct, dating back to our tree-climbing days.

  5. Natasha

    “. And society – with nothing better to do – will rather condemn than be compassionate. That’s our disability, Servaas, and there’s no prosthesis for that.””

    Amen to that.
    We love to see people fall from grace, and we love kicking them when they’re down even more.

    “It’s a strange, strange world we live in, Master Jack…..”

  6. Michelle Auletta

    I couldn’t agree with you more. You have perfectly stated my thoughts that I have had ever since this tragedy became known to me. I was a prosecutor and I take a tough stand on crimes. But this young man has clearly become a broken man after what has occurred. He is no cold blooded murderer. He made a terrible mistake and regardless of the outcome of the trial he has lost his own life as he knew it and will never be the same. My heart goes out to him and is family as much as it goes out to the Steenkamp family.

    1. Amos van der Merwe Post author

      Thank you so much, Michelle…it’s a heart-warming comment and I appreciate it. This, I believe, is the attitude people should adopt. If the court finds differently, then so be it. Until that time, both families and Oscar deserves our prayers for healing.

  7. Queenie

    Sorry I love maths! I used to be crap at it! But since I have been teaching year six children I am so much better! Probably a good thing as I am a teacher x

  8. Joanna Johnson

    You’re one of the few who takes a more objective approach to this. Which is what we need. Most of the commentaries I’ve seen have proven him to be more guilty than innocent. I’m not saying he’s either — I’m still ambivalent about the whole thing. I just feel the news has made a rush to judgement, as if they’re trying to look for things to point to his guilt, things that all of us partake in ourselves. Deep down I still believe it’s a tragic accident, although I won’t rule out guilt or premeditated murder if there’s viable evidence to prove that.
    The case is still a shock to me.

    1. Amos van der Merwe Post author

      Thanks Joanna – we are in complete agreement on this. We are left shocked and dazed, as are, I’m sure, the two families. May the truth not only surface, but dictate our attitude – once it is known. Until then, let’s pray that all concerned will find peace.


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