John Carlin: Only Shakespeare could have written of the tragic story of Oscar Pistorius

Somebody who seemed to represent South Africa at its best turned out to represent it at its worst

“Reputation, reputation, reputation!” goes a passage from Shakespeare’s Othello. “O, I have lost my reputation! I have lost the immortal part of myself, and what remains is bestial.”

The character who speaks the lines is Cassio, Othello’s friend and lieutenant, after the relatively trifling matter of being caught in a drunken brawl, though Shakespeare might just as well have given them to Othello himself after he killed his wife. Were Oscar Pistorius to hear Shakespeare’s words today they would no doubt strike an anguished chord.

This is not to suggest that Pistorius shot his girlfriend, Reeva Steenkamp, in a jealous rage. All will presumably be revealed in court in due time. Although it does appear, unless the South African police have made an atrocious mess of their investigation, that Pistorius owned a gun and was alone in his house with his victim at the moment of the crime. The only question seems to be whether the killing was premeditated, as the state claims, or, in some way or another, involuntary.

Whatever the case, while not forgetting the sorrow and pain of Reeva Steenkamp’s family, Pistorius is, like Othello, a tragic hero. Both triumphed after overcoming seemingly insuperable obstacles. Othello, as a Moor, as a black man who rose to become an admired general in the city state of Venice; Pistorius, in a tale that would have defied even Shakespeare’s powers of imagination and is unequalled in terms of sheer will-power in the history of sport, as an Olympic runner who had his legs amputated between his knees and his ankles at the age of 11 months.

Even if Pistorius avoids the mandatory life sentence for premeditated murder, even if somehow he were to recover his freedom, his reputation is shot and he is condemned to eke out the rest of his days as a sad shadow of the heroic, world famous figure he had struggled so valiantly to become. But while he stamped his name on the global map by managing to compete against able-bodied athletes in last year’s London Olympic Games, it is within South Africa that he has been most prized and cherished for longest, and where the shock at his fall from grace is most sharply felt.

Until the events of Valentine’s Day, Oscar Pistorius’ story mirrored, in a sense, his country’s. Or, at any rate, the story to which South Africa aspires. He was born in 1986 into a nation traumatised by nearly 40 years of apartheid at a time of violent daily clashes between black protesters and police. Nelson Mandela was in jail, democracy was not on the agenda, a bloodbath loomed. Eight years later apartheid was dead, Mandela was President, the young Oscar was playing rugby with artificial legs and a new era began in which South Africans dreamt of overcoming the hard legacy of the past and becoming a nation of peace, equality and high achievement. The dream had yet to be fulfilled but Pistorius has shown the way forward. If he could reach equality on the running track, if he could compete with the world’s fastest and best, what glories might South Africa achieve?

Pistorius became his country’s proverbial role model. As with all other successful South African sportsmen, the admiration was colour blind. Blacks and whites and all shades in between have taken the rugby players François Pienaar and Bryan Habana, and the cricketers Hashim Amla and Makhaya Ntini, to their collective hearts. But Pistorius was in a class of his own as a symbol of national pride. In a different context to Nelson Mandela, but in a not dissimilar vein, he inspired his compatriots, feeding an image South Africans like to have of themselves as survivors, as battlers, as never-say-die achievers.

Yet now Pistorius has become a symbol of South Africa’s dark side, revealing the shadows South Africans themselves fear but would rather keep hidden from the world. And which, indeed, they did manage to keep quiet, or at least cover up, during their manifestly successful, crime-free hosting of the 2010 World Cup. The truth is, however, that South Africa is one of the most violent countries in the world, with one of the highest homicide rates. Pistorius did to his girlfriend – everything so far indicates – what every South African fears will be done to him or herself. To the shock of the news of the killing is added an awful sense of disappointment and hurt. Somebody who appeared to represent South Africa at its best has turned out, it would seem, to represent South Africa at its worst. Quite apart from the damage to South Africa’s image abroad, what this stunning turn of events does is damage South Africans’ image of themselves. It undermines national morale. Jacob Zuma, the South African President, delivered his state of the union address, with hideously unfortunate timing, last night, a matter of hours after Reeva Steenkamp’s death. The message of hope Zuma sought to transmit was ironically underscored, not to say shattered, by the far bigger news of the day.

Pistorius is not South Africa; he is not Mandela. His compatriots will overcome the blow to his reputation, and by extension theirs, in a way that he himself never shall. Ultimately, his is a universal tale, an epic rise and tragic fall. The spectacle this morning of him shielding his face – his new face, the one the world never knew or suspected he might have – on the way to court, and then reports of him weeping uncontrollably before the magistrate as the enormity of the horror of his predicament and of the crime of which he was being accused sank in, could not but inspire pity, sorrow and regret among all those familiar with his story around the world; as well, perhaps, as feelings of hatred and rage among his dead girlfriend’s relatives and friends. No one will have been left cold by Pistorius’ brutal morality tale.

One of the lessons Shakespeare draws in his Venetian tragedy is contained in the words of the play’s anti-hero. “Reputation,” Iago replies to the forlorn Cassio, “is an idle and most false imposition.” In Pistorius’ case that would seem to ring true. His past glories are dead to the world, and what remains is bestial.

John Carlin is the author of ‘Playing the Enemy: Nelson Mandela and the Game that Made a Nation’