In case anyone out there still asks, Nelson Mandela has never been overrated. His sprawling global esteem owes nothing to hype. His frequent distinction as the world's most-admired person reminds us that a whole lot of earthlings do possess clear heads. What he did falls somewhere in that realm beyond extraordinary.
To labor in a lime quarry while imprisoned unjustly for 27 years, and to talk out a vision for a national future with other prisoners while moving rocks pointlessly, and to have that vision include the forgiveness of the very perpetrators of the imprisonment, and to parse that view from the hard-won reasoning that retaliation would be neither prudent nor exemplary …
Let's just say it's among the best turns humanity has seen. While revenge often does require some strength, forgoing revenge requires tons more.
So as a world-famous athlete sleeps in a jailhouse shedding admirers in Pretoria, a world-admired man still lives down the road in Johannesburg, and it's hard to expunge that backdrop as the grimness keeps spilling out in the Oscar Pistorius case, even as the men's lives are unrelated save for fame and nationality.
It's already grim to process completely any violent death, but this story keeps ladling on the bleakness as the days roll by and the bail hearing begins. It has managed to take one of the most appealing athletic stories on Earth, a man born without a fibula in each leg who somehow winds up in the able-bodied Olympics on vanguard prostheses, and hurl it into a horror spiral.
It has a 26-year-old hero with a great chance at a great life suddenly filling a courtroom with quaking sobs, his gaudy life as he knew it discontinued. A murder charge has emanated from Valentine's Day. Billboards have come down. Sponsors have fled. Race appearances have gone cancelled. The victim, Reeva Steenkamp, has appeared posthumously on a reality show, stirring a debate on the propriety of that. A bloody cricket bat has appeared as an international item of macabre intrigue after reporting from the City Press of South Africa, and now the Times of South Africa reports that police and laboratory technicians have a keen interest in the substances found in the bedside drawer.
This case certainly did not need steroids.
Yet if you take all of that and pile it up, you're still not through, given one more consideration: South Africa itself. Here's the country that harbored one of the great acts of human thinking and courage of our times, where the person who did that thinking actually did become president. Here we are 19 years after Mandela's inauguration, 19 years after the gorgeous country at the base of Africa lit up the world with the presidency that refused to succumb to vengeance. And while anybody with a dose of realism knew it would take generations of progress to undo generations of misery and inequality and institutional distrust among the races, here's a case that throws the most conspicuous light on the continuing violence.
Somehow, the very best sports story in a sports-loving country turns hideous. You certainly can feel ill for the place, even if you can't impugn it, given our own issues with violence.
The Pistorius details have brought along the trappings of the ugly fabric that won't let go of the beautiful country. He bought the handgun to protect himself because that need might arise. As a defense, he maintains he mistook Steenkamp for an intruder, a contention which aims for plausibility because intruders can be a possibility. As a telling sidelight, his house occupies one of South Africa's gated communities, known for their security walls and electrified fences and round-the-clock guards until they wind up resembling mystery neighborhoods, warded off from the rest of the world, emblems of a fear that makes some parents force their offspring abroad for university.
The case of an Olympic athlete and a model has brought the violence problem into another light, just as the country tried to cope with the gang-rape and murder of a 17-year-old girl who was not famous. It has wrought discussions about the high rate of femicide, with at least one women's group arguing against bail for Pistorius. It has generated another round of self-examination of just about everything.
And underneath all of it, it happened in South Africa, and while it doesn't reflect on South Africa any more than any other such case, it happened loudly in the place for which many people cheer loudly. It happened in what is also a beacon of nonviolence, the place of an admired turn of 20th-century history involving an admired turn of thinking from a vastly admired man.