When Heroes Let Us Down

My father, a psychiatrist, used to lament that the younger generation didn’t have heroes anymore. I think what he meant was that with the ready access to media-generating tools, and with the erosion of privacy as social media swell in popularity, heroes can no longer hide behind a cloak of mystery as they once did, when media was more concentrated and more rigorously controlled, sometimes by force. Heroes can’t get away with much anymore. Which means that heroes are harder to find (or create).

My father was born in 1940, well before Al Gore invented the Internet.* Heck, he lived in an era before computers made it possible for everyone and their dog to self-publish memoirs, before iPhones revolutionized the ability to photograph every meal we have, every trip we take, and every embarrassing moment we’d rather forget. My father had many heroes. He looked up to existentialist writers Martin Heidegger, Albert Camus and Soren Kierkegaard. He admired the musical complexity of Shostakovich and Bela Bartok. And as a young man, he followed keenly the political teachings of one Henrik Verwoerd. Verwoerd is often credited with fathering the Apartheid movement in South Africa (side-note: hear Verwoerd himself defining the word Apartheid during a speech in 1961, through the wonder of YouTube).

In the early 1990s, when Apartheid was clearly coming to an end, and I was a surly, depressed teenager, I would angrily argue with my father over his blindness to the horrors his political idol birthed. His response? Apartheid as a political ideology was corrupted in practice, but in principle there is nothing inherently racist in the political view that different cultures should co-exist side by side, separate but equal. That, to him, is what Apartheid stood for. And that is what he voted for every time he cast his ballot in support of the National Party. When I asked him about the horrors – the torture, assassinations and violence the apartheid regime is known for today – he claimed that the media lied to the Afrikaner people at the time these atrocities were happening. He hadn’t known how bad it had gotten.

I don’t know if it’s true that he didn’t know, or if it was a willed blindness, an unwillingness to see a truth that was unpleasant and did not align with the truth his political hero proclaimed. When reality doesn’t add up, sometimes we dive into a fantasy instead. It keeps us safe; it keeps the narrative of who we think we are safe. My father wanted to believe in what Henrik Verwoerd represented, because the narrative of who Verwoerd was, was a compelling one, and he saw himself in Verwoerd, as did so many other Afrikaners of his generation.

This week an inspirational hero of my own has revealed a different side to who he is. I click obsessively on every news link I can find to follow the saga of Oscar Pistorius, the runner who was born without fibulas and succeeded in competing in both the Paralympics and the Olympics, winning multiple medals in the former and making it to the semi-finals in the latter. Here was a man who as a boy of fifteen, lost his mother, but went on to transcend his disability and grief, refusing to let them limit him. Who doesn’t like a good story about an underdog? Somewhere, I’m sure, a film script about his life lies waiting.

Except that his particular story has taken a sharp turn in an unexpected direction. Charged with shooting his girlfriend Reeva Steenkamp 4 times, killing her, Oscar has morphed from inspirational sports icon into murderer in less time than it takes most people to run 400 m. Some secrets are hard to keep quiet, and the secret of Reeva’s death didn’t stay that way for long. I’m not interested in the contradictory accounts of what happened or weighing in on Pistorius’ guilt or innocence. The truth will out eventually, I’m sure. If nothing else, Pistorius will have to live with what happened that night, knowing what his role was, or wasn’t.

What I am interested in is how the new narrative direction of Pistorius’ life has affected me and countless others. After all, I do not know Pistorius personally. Up til a few days ago I didn’t much care. But like most I had heard of his heroic feats in the media, of how he was born without legs and had, through hard work, persistence, and dedication, made a name for himself first as a Paralympian, then later as an Olympian. I had read in Scientific American the controversy over whether his prosthetic blades gave him an unfair advantage over able-bodied athletes and I marvelled at the science-fiction nature of it all: Of how as a species we are already turning into cyborgs. Was this, I wondered, what lay ahead for us? When class differences are no longer simply between those who own houses and those who do not, but between people who use technology to lengthen their life spans, increase their brain capacity, optimize their strength, speed and stamina through technology? How far would an individual have to go to cross the line between human and machine? And will we reach a point when that distinction is an arbitrary one?

Little did I know how the life of Oscar Pistorius, augur of a strange new world, would trigger an entirely more pedestrian story in the early morning hours of February 14th 2013. One that involved a dead girlfriend and a firearm, in a country plagued with violence, and violence against women especially. Following on the horrific rape and murder of Anene Booysen, Pistorius’ alleged crime strikes an all-too-familiar nerve in the South African psyche. And yet a different scenario, the one he claims is the truth, is also compelling: a disabled young man regularly on the receiving end of personal death threats, living in a country with the second highest crime rate in the world (after Colombia), attempts to defend himself against an intruder only discover the “intruder” is his 29-year-old girlfriend. He tries to resuscitate her, but in vain. She dies in his arms. Having lived in South Africa myself for almost 10 years, in the same city where Pistorius shot his girlfriend, I can attest to the state of constant fear everyone lives in in that country. It’s not an excuse; it’s a reality.

With the spread of media into the hands of anyone with a smart phone, controlling one’s own narrative becomes all the more difficult, as Oscar is discovering. Under the constant, unforgiving glare of local and international media, and on the social media boards of the world, Oscar Pistorius’ troubled history with women will see the light of day, as will his possible use of steroids, if the rumours are true that police found a stash of bottles and syringes in his bedroom.

As for Oscar the man, part of me hopes that he somehow redeems himself and is proven innocent of premeditated murder. But even if his version of facts were true and he shot what he thought was an intruder through a closed bathroom door (why didn’t Reeva call out? Why did Oscar not announce himself first?), does that truly constitute innocence? Since when is it self-defence to shoot someone you cannot see? Then again, Oscar is no hero; he is a human being. He is a man with a gift who has lived his life in the public eye. What does a hero do when the curtain is pulled away and his humanity is exposed? That is a question only Oscar can answer.

*Al Gore didn’t really invent the Internet. For an interesting article from the Wall Street Journal on its true origins, click here.

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