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’

News
Pro-Russia rebels guard a train containing the bodies of victims of the Malaysia Airlines flight MH 17 crash in Torez, Ukraine
i100
Life and Style
Child's play: letting young people roam outdoors directly contradicts the current climate
lifeHow much independence should children have?
Arts and Entertainment
Tycoons' text: Warren Buffett and Bill Gates both cite John Brookes' 'Business Adventures' as their favourite book
booksFind out why America's richest men are reading John Brookes
Property
Sign here, please: Magna Carta Island
propertyYours for a cool £4m
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebookA unique anthology of reporting and analysis of a crucial period of history
News
people
Arts and Entertainment
Struggling actors who scrape a living working in repertory theatres should get paid a 'living wage', Sir Ian McKellen has claimed
theatre
News
Skye McCole Bartusiak's mother said she didn't use drink or drugs
peopleActress was known for role in Mel Gibson film The Patriot
News
i100
Arts and Entertainment
Damon Albarn is starting work on a new West End musical
artsStar's 'leftfield experimental opera' is turning mainstream
Life and Style
Paul and his father
artsPaul Carter wants to play his own father in the film of his memoirs
Sport
Ben Stokes trudges off after his latest batting failure for England as Ishant Sharma celebrates one of his seven wickets
cricket
Arts and Entertainment
Members of the public are invited to submit their 'sexcapades' to Russell T Davies' new series Tofu
tv
News
Sky's Colin Brazier rummages through an MH17 victim's belongings live on air
i100
Arts and Entertainment
Keira Knightley and Benedict Cumberbatch star in the Alan Turing biopic The Imitation Game
arts + ents'The Imitation Game' stars Benedict Cumberbatch and Keira Knightley
Extras
indybest
News
i100... and no one notices
Arts and Entertainment
Friends reunited: Julian Ovenden, Richard Cant and Matt Bardock in rehearsals for the Donmar revival of 'My Night
with Reg'
theatrePoignancy of Kevin Elyot's play being revived just after his death
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Training Programme Manager (Learning and Development)-London

£28000 - £32000 per annum + benefits: Ashdown Group: Training Programme Manage...

Training/Learning and Development Coordinator -London

£28000 - £32000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Training/Learning and Development Co...

Year 5/6 Teacher

£100 - £120 per day: Randstad Education Chelmsford: The successful applicant w...

Year 5/6 Teacher

£21000 - £35000 per day: Randstad Education Chelmsford: The JobThe successful ...

Day In a Page

Some are reformed drug addicts. Some are single mums. All are on benefits. But now these so-called 'scroungers’ are fighting back

The 'scroungers’ fight back

The welfare claimants battling to alter stereotypes
Amazing video shows Nasa 'flame extinguishment experiment' in action

Fireballs in space

Amazing video shows Nasa's 'flame extinguishment experiment' in action
A Bible for billionaires

A Bible for billionaires

Find out why America's richest men are reading John Brookes
Paranoid parenting is on the rise - and our children are suffering because of it

Paranoid parenting is on the rise

And our children are suffering because of it
For sale: Island where the Magna Carta was sealed

Magna Carta Island goes on sale

Yours for a cool £4m
Phone hacking scandal special report: The slide into crime at the 'News of the World'

The hacker's tale: the slide into crime at the 'News of the World'

Glenn Mulcaire was jailed for six months for intercepting phone messages. James Hanning tells his story in a new book. This is an extract
We flinch, but there are degrees of paedophilia

We flinch, but there are degrees of paedophilia

Child abusers are not all the same, yet the idea of treating them differently in relation to the severity of their crimes has somehow become controversial
The truth about conspiracy theories is that some require considering

The truth about conspiracy theories is that some require considering

For instance, did Isis kill the Israeli teenagers to trigger a war, asks Patrick Cockburn
Alistair Carmichael: 'The UK as a whole is greater than the sum of its parts'

Alistair Carmichael: 'The UK as a whole is greater than the sum of its parts'

Meet the man who doesn't want to go down in history as the country's last Scottish Secretary
Legoland Windsor's master model-makers reveal the tricks of their trade (including how to stop the kids wrecking your Eiffel Tower)

Meet the people who play with Lego for a living

They are the master builders: Lego's crack team of model-makers, who have just glued down the last of 650,000 bricks as they recreate Paris in Windsor. Susie Mesure goes behind the scenes
The 20 best days out for the summer holidays: From Spitfires to summer ferry sailings

20 best days out for the summer holidays

From summer ferry sailings in Tyne and Wear and adventure days at Bear Grylls Survival Academy to Spitfires at the Imperial War Museum Duxford and bog-snorkelling at the World Alternative Games...
Open-air theatres: If all the world is a stage, then everyone gets in on the act

All the wood’s a stage

Open-air productions are the cue for better box-office receipts, new audiences, more interesting artistic challenges – and a picnic
Rand Paul is a Republican with an eye on the world

Rupert Cornwell: A Republican with an eye on the world

Rand Paul is laying out his presidential stall by taking on his party's disastrous record on foreign policy
Self-preservation society: Pickles are moving from the side of your plate to become the star dish

Self-preservation society

Pickles are moving from the side of your plate to become the star dish
Generation gap opens a career sinkhole

Britons live ever longer, but still society persists in glorifying youth

We are living longer but considered 'past it' younger, the reshuffle suggests. There may be trouble ahead, says DJ Taylor