TIME South Africa

South Africa’s Ruling ANC Looks to Learn from Chinese Communist Party

Then-South African Deputy President Kgalema Motlanthe meeting with Chinese President Xi Jinping in Beijing last year. Motlanthe has been announced as the principal of the planned ANC leadership school.
Getty Images Then-South African Deputy President Kgalema Motlanthe meeting with Chinese President Xi Jinping in Beijing last year.

The party of Nelson Mandela has chosen the site for a new school that will be based on Chinese Communist Party political education

Most South Africans don’t visit Venterskroon, a former gold-mining town, unless they are going there on vacation. It was the site of an inconclusive battle between the British and the Boers in 1900 but today the handful of mostly white landowners harvest pecan nuts or raise cattle while vacationers trek in the bush and fish in the Vaal River.

But the sleepy Afrikaner village is about to be transformed. It is slated to become the home of the African National Congress’ (ANC) new political leadership school, a project inspired and financed by the Communist Party of China, a burgeoning partnership of ruling parties on different continents that is causing concern in South Africa and beyond.

The ANC Political School and Policy Institute, which will include a swimming pool, halls, a fitness center, a pharmacy and a small shopping center, is due to be built on what is now a farm, which the ANC bought in 2010. Construction has been postponed while funding and planning issues are addressed.

The ANC says the institute will be modelled on the China Executive Leadership Academy Pudong in Shanghai, one of the Communist Party’s leadership and governance schools where party members and foreign guests attend classes on “revolutionary traditions,” learning everything from Marxist theory to media management.

In July, a Chinese delegation led by Tian Xuejun, China’s ambassador to South Africa, travelled to Venterskroon to see the site. They met with ANC Secretary General Gwede Mantashe and Nathi Mthethwa, South Africa’s Minister of Arts and Culture and the ANC’s Chairman of Political Education, to discuss $75 million in funding. (The Chinese embassy in South Africa did not respond to requests for comment.)

“We’ve been talking to people around the world, our friends; the Communist Party of China is one of those,” says Mthethwa. “We said to them, ‘Now look, we know that you have a political school, how did you start it?'”

The ANC’s courting of China has caused concern in the West. “In the worst case scenario, Chinese money in significant amounts and influence could tip the ANC in the wrong direction,” says Peter Pham, Africa analyst at the Washington-based Atlantic Council. “With the ANC being the way it is, if there is a heavy hand in the support, potentially it could result in shifts in governmental policy.”

The domination of South African politics by the ANC, and its members, known as cadres, can make South Africa seem like a one-party state, says Patrick Heller, international studies professor at Brown University. “Like any party in power for too long — the ANC has won every election since 1994 with over 60% of the vote — the ANC has amassed a tremendous amount of power. That power is increasingly centralized. That party itself is increasingly less accountable,” says Heller. “It’s hard to think of any better example of a cadre-based political party than the Chinese Communist Party but it’s the wrong model because at the end of the day it’s an authoritarian one,” he says. “Developing close personal relationships between the ANC and the Communist Party of China means you’re basically greasing the wheels and making it easier for the Chinese state and Chinese entrepreneurs. That is definitely not good. You want good bureaucratic management of these issues, not crony capitalism.”

As far as China is concerned, says Alexander Beresford, African politics lecturer at the University of Leeds, funding the ANC’s political school does not violate its non-interference policy, as the relationship is at a party-to-party level. “It’s not necessarily regular state-to-state relationships, Pretoria to Beijing style, but having other channels of influence,” says Beresford. “Exploiting these party-to-party channels gives it a strategic advantage over Western powers.”

China has been reaching out to ruling parties in other African countries also. In his book China and Africa: A Century of Engagement, former U.S. ambassador to Ethiopia David Shinn chronicles how China has offered political education training for parties including Tanzania’s Chama Cha Mapinduzi party, Zimbabwe’s ZANU-PF and Namibia’s SWAPO. “It is provided at the request of African ruling parties,” says Shinn. “They may still prefer elements of Marxist-Leninist organizational structure, or at a minimum, the once-popular philosophy of African socialism.” The arrangement is usually an exclusive one. “China does not provide similar training for African opposition political parties,” says Shinn. In return, China wins friends and favors, he says, gaining “influence at the highest levels of government.”

The school is part of a bigger ANC strategy to counter the widespread corruption and nepotism the party has seen since Nelson Mandela was elected the country’s first black president in 1994. The ANC declared 2013-2023 the “decade of the cadre,” with the goal of putting every party member through some kind of political school. “Every cadre of the movement must have integrity for our people to have confidence,” said Mantashe in a 2013 ANC newsletter. “We must be bold in dealing with deviant behaviour.”

Whether the political training will help South Africa and other African governments end corruption in government is a different question. China has a network of political schools and yet it is still experiencing massive graft scandals involving senior officials.

The ANC is prepared to take that risk. And it will do so no matter what its critics say. The ANC’s partnership with China’s Communist Party, Mthethwa says, is its own business: “Nobody will dictate to us who our friends are.”


Judiciary Becomes Topic of Debate After Pistorius Verdict

Oscar Pistorius listens to the verdict in his murder trial in the High Court in Pretoria on September 12, 2014.
Siphiwe Sibeko—AFP/Getty Images Oscar Pistorius listens to the verdict in his murder trial in the High Court in Pretoria on September 12, 2014.

The Paralympian has been found guilty of culpable homicide in the shooting of his girlfriend, after being acquitted of the more serious charge of murder, a verdict that has provoked an ugly response among some in the country

The knee-jerk reaction within South Africa to Oscar Pistorius being acquitted of murder was as swift as it was ugly. Pistorius paid off Judge Thokozile Masipa, said some. He got off because he was an influential sports star, said others. Many said they wanted to see him behind bars for murder. “I think he paid the judge,” said Pontsho Mabogwane, a 20-year-old student sitting in a park near the Pistorius courthouse. “I want him to go to jail.”

Mabogwane isn’t the only one who lacks confidence in the country’s legal system. Once an example of success in the country’s post-apartheid democracy, the judiciary is now seen as favoring the wealthy and high-ranking, with top prosecutors allegedly appointed more for their political loyalty than their commitment to the constitution. In his decision to allow cameras inside the courtroom, Judge Dunstan Mlambo, who ruled that the trial should be broadcast live back in February before the court proceedings began, noted that the decision should help counter the belief that the law in South Africa treats the rich “with kid gloves.”

Yet when Pistorius was acquitted of all murder charges—instead Judge Masipa found him guilty of culpable homicide after shooting dead his model girlfriend Reeva Steenkamp—it appeared to some as though the 27-year-old star sprinter had joined the ranks of other rich, famous people who dodged the full wrath of the law. (Shortly after the judgement #OscarTrial was the top trend in Pretoria, with #JusticeForReeva second). “His intention was to kill whoever was behind that door,” said Nkosi Nkambule, a 39-year-old IT worker standing outside the Pistorius courthouse. “We sincerely hope the state will appeal,” he said, “surely justice will be served.”

Disappointment in the judiciary has been exacerbated by legal experts in the country who have criticized Judge Masipa’s interpretation of murder—and the potential effect is has on the country’s reputation. In her concise ruling, Judge Masipa said Pistorius should not be found guilty of murder because he could not have foreseen he would kill Steenkamp when he fired four shots at the toilet door early Valentine’s Day morning in 2013. “Not only does it appear to be a misunderstanding of the facts, but a misapplication of the law,” said Martin Hood, a criminal lawyer based in Johannesburg, “as a result of that, the perception persists that South Africa is not only a country that is riddled with crime but you can get away with it.”

The sentence for culpable homicide is up to the judge’s discretion, with a maximum of 15 years in jail. Still, there is a possibility of Pistorius escaping prison altogether, given his status as a first-time offender and the notorious state of South Africa’s jails, which are violent and overcrowded. Those familiar with the country’s courts say there is a chance the Paralympic gold medallist won’t be wearing an orange jumpsuit. That’s primarily because of two reasons, says Pauli van Wyk, a crime and court reporter for Beeld, an Afrikaans newspaper in South Africa. “Culpable homicide is not that strenuous a charge and South African jails are to-the-brink full,” said Van Wyk, “so if the guy doesn’t pose a threat to anyone and he says its an honest mistake and he can be rehabilitated, they try and let them go home.”

William Booth, a criminal lawyer based in Cape Town, believes a lot of the outrage could have been dissipated by a more comprehensive ruling from Judge Masipa. “I think South Africans, the public, are dissatisfied because she didn’t explain exactly why she came to her ruling,” he said, “I don’t think she gave sufficient reasons.” Without that explanation, the Pistorius verdict doesn’t sit well with Mabogwane and others who are cynical about the South African legal system. As Mabogwane put it, “you can’t just shoot the person and walk free.”


Kenya Faces Homegrown Threat From Al-Shabab

Recent attacks have highlighted the growing internal threat from terrorists allied with the Somali militant group

Kenya is under attack from within. Over the past two weeks, suspected al-Shabab militants have massacred 60 people in a Kenyan coastal town, marking the country’s worst terrorist violence since the Westgate mall siege that left at least 67 people dead last year. Eyewitnesses said the attackers stormed the town of Mpeketoni in minivans flying the black al-Shabab flag, shouting “Allahu Akbar” (God is the greatest). Speaking in Somali and Swahili, an official language in Kenya, the gunmen asked if the residents were Muslim. If not, they fired, according to reports.

The attacks underscore the increasing homegrown al-Shabab threat in Kenya, once seen as a stable ally of the United States in East Africa, a popular destination for American tourists to go on safari and sunbathe on the beach of the Indian Ocean. Yet Kenya, with its porous borders, political corruption, and high density of Western targets is now being described as a breeding ground for al-Shabab, a terrorist group with origins in Somalia and links to al-Qaeda, that is actively targeting U.S. citizens and businesses in Kenya and possibly abroad. The oppressive Kenyan response is not helping. Today, critics say Kenya’s latest anti-terror campaign, described by human rights groups as indiscriminate persecution of Somali refugees and Kenyan Muslims, is backfiring, with the anti-Muslim sentiment being used by al-Shabab to whip up support inside the country.

“Probably the greatest misunderstanding of al-Shabab is that people underestimate the degree that al-Shabab has become a Kenyan problem,” says Matt Bryden, the head of Sahan Research, a Nairobi-based Horn of Africa think-tank. al-Hijra, a Kenyan associate of al-Shabab, has mobilized its Kenyan followers through extremist Muslim preachers, targeting youth in mosques and through jihad propaganda; online videos featuring the organization’s leaders and an online magazine, Gaidi Mtaani. Al-Hijra members, estimated by Bryden to number over 700, have battlefield training, having crossed the border to fight in Somalia. Meanwhile, their charismatic leader, Kenyan Ahmed Iman Ali, is at large. “The tempo of attacks and the scale of attacks suggest that al-Shabab and al-Hijra have taken the initiative,” he says, “what observers are looking for is a sign that the Kenyan government has taken the initiative back.”

That sign has not come. The latest terrorist attacks were met with confusion. After first declaring al-Shabab responsible for the massacre, the Kenyan government later blamed the violence on longstanding ethnic devisions, putting the attack squarely on the opposition’s soldiers. The claim was met with skepticism.

Usually, Kenyan leaders cast terrorism as a foreign threat, a Somali problem. But in response to the quickening tempo of al-Shabab bombings, the Kenyan government announced “Operation Usalama Watch,” a crackdown on Somali immigrants and refugees in Kenya. Under the campaign, which means “Operation Safety Watch” in Swahili, over 4,000 Somalis and Muslim Kenyans were detained at the MOI International Sports Center in Kasarani, a suburb of Nairobi. The sports grounds were used as a mass jail, before people were either cleared and released by police, sent to impoverished refugee camps, or deported back to war-torn Somalia. In May, Linda Thomas-Greenfield, US Assistant Secretary of State, Bureau of African Affairs, expressed “strong concerns” about the operation, questioning its rectitude after Human Rights Watch reported people dying during brutal round-ups, children becoming estranged from their parents, and police officers beating people and soliciting hundred-dollar bribes. “It’s a lazy, knee jerk response to a deeply serious problem of violent extremism that Kenyans are facing,” says Jonathan Horowitz, a legal officer at the Open Society Justice Initiative, a New York-based non-profit. “Abuses—extrajudicial killings, torture, disappearances—are propaganda and recruitment tools.”

For the United States, the potential radicalization of Kenyan youth is a worst-case scenario. “You’ve just rounded up a group of men, and you’ve set them in a place to get up to either mischief or find another avenue, which could be al-Shabab,” says Lauren Ploch Blanchard, African affairs specialist at the Congressional Research Service in Washington. Huge resources have been spent to prevent Kenyan radicalization. Kenya is the fourth largest recipient of U.S. aid for civilian counterterrorism operations, with $43 million earmarked over the past four years, and an additional $117 million for counterterrorism and border security programs. “Some of this is difficult and frustrating, yet we need to be there to help them so that we don’t have to come in and do it all ourselves,” says U.S. Congressman Mac Thornberry, speaking from his office in Washington. “There’s been a greater effort to gather information about what al-Shabab is doing, what they plan to do,” said Thornberry, who sits on the House Armed Services Committee, “but the primary responsibility within Kenya is obviously up to the Kenyan government.”

Beginning in April, the Kenyan government’s anti-terror campaign saw 6,000 Kenyan police descend on Eastleigh, a bustling, gritty suburb of Nairobi, home to thousands of Somali refugees and Kenyan Muslims. Visiting Eastleigh, I met Ahmed Mohamed, the secretary general of the Eastleigh Business Community, at the Nomad Palace Hotel, a hotel in luxury Mogadishu style with velvet sofas studded with fake diamonds and coffee cups decorated with golden camels. Over a lemon tea with honey, Mohamed described Operation Usalama Watch as a nightmare. “At first they came in and started knocking down doors and flushing out people, it was really, really terrible,” says the 36-year-old, “they were rounding up everyone and taking them to Kasarani stadium, which was later called a concentration camp.”

Today the controversial operation is still going. At the Kasarani stadium, where a billboard proudly displays a champion long distance runner with the slogan “Home of Heroes,” troops in fatigues and maroon berets patrol the grounds with guns slung over their shoulder. Four men were walking from the stadium, just released after four days inside. “I’ve never understood the objective of these police operations, was it to take out illegal immigrants or was it to fight terrorism? Because if it was to fight terrorism they’re going about it the wrong way,” says Mohamed, a Kenyan Muslim. “When you knock down a door at 2 am in the morning, and wake up the elderly grandmother, with her children, what do you expect a teenager to think at that very moment? It will only create animosity in him.”

To the young, al-Shabab promises not only revenge, but fortune and adventure. “Al-Shabab, they even recruit our youth, they tell them we’ll pay you money,” says Benson Sekwa, a burly 38-year-old taxi driver in Nairobi who says a 22-year-old friend of his was recruited by the group. Sekwa’s friend went to Somalia to train and was arrested upon his return to Kenya. “You could tell him don’t do that, but he can’t hear you,” says Sekwa, “he’s after the money.”

As long as the Kenyan government is heavy-handed, observers say al-Shabab and al-Hijra will continue to capitalize on the anti-Muslim sentiment to rally Kenyan youngsters to wage jihad. “The worst case scenario is if the government continues to rely on the hammer, on the security sector, exclusively, to deal with the threat,” says Bryden. “For the moment, we haven’t seen a sign of the government using soft power as a way of undermining jihadist groups,” he says. “If they rely solely on military policing then I’m afraid the threat will endure.”

TIME Kenya

A Militant Group Rears Its Head in Kenya Again

A member of the Kenyan security forces observes the remains of vehicles destroyed by militants, in the village of Kibaoni just outside the town of Mpeketoni, about 60 miles from the Somali border on the coast of Kenya, June 16, 2014.
AP A member of the Kenyan security forces observes the remains of vehicles destroyed by al-Shabab militants in the coastal town of Mpeketoni, about 100 km (60 miles) from the Somali border, on June 16, 2014

The country becoming breeding ground for al-Shabab

While the Kenyan government deliberates, al-Shabab has claimed responsibility for attacks on a coastal town that killed 48 people Sunday evening. Al-Shabab, a Somali militant group with links to al-Qaeda, said on Twitter on Monday afternoon that the Mpeketoni attack was “retaliation for Muslim clerics killed in Mombasa,” indicating a growing terrorism threat in Kenya as Western governments are warning their citizens to stay away.

The attack was brutal in its familiarity. In 2010 in Kampala, Uganda, al-Shabab detonated two bombs that killed 74 people watching the World Cup final. Four years later, two minibuses stormed into Mpeketoni carrying gunman who began shooting, aiming at spectators watching the World Cup. Sunday’s battle continued through the night, marking Kenya’s worst violence since al-Shabab gunmen stormed the luxurious Westgate Mall in Nairobi last year, killing 67 people.

Kenya, next door to war-torn Somalia, is being described by the U.S. government as a breeding ground for al-Shabab, an organization actively targeting U.S. citizens, buildings and businesses in Kenya — and possibly on American soil.

“The extremist presence in Kenya is very, very worrying because of the concentration of potential targets,” says Lauren Ploch Blanchard, specialist in African affairs at the Congressional Research Service, a nonpartisan think tank in Washington, D.C. She points out that Nairobi, Kenya’s capital, is home to many U.S. diplomats, aid organizations and companies, including Google and IBM. “The worst case scenario is another Westgate or worse, a 1998 embassy bombing or an attack on a Western plane, you’ve got no end of Western targets there,” she says.

Despite ramping up security, Kenya has seen a string of al-Shabab-related bombings and shootings in the past year, some connected to interchurch rivalries. Six days ago, gunmen killed Sheik Mohamed Idris, a popular moderate Muslim cleric who spoke out against the radical preachings of al-Shabab. Idris’ death followed that of a handful of high-profile preachers aligned with al-Shabab, whose deaths sparked deadly riots in the coastal town of Mombasa.

In May, the U.S. government joined the U.K. in issuing travel advisories to Kenya, warning of increased risks of a terrorist attack. On Monday, American Marines were reportedly stationed on the roof of the U.S. embassy in Nairobi.

Less than 24 hours after the attack took place, questions remain about the motive. Al-Shabab, usually the first to broadcast news of their attacks over radio or Twitter, did not take responsibility for the attack at first, prompting speculation the shooting was caused by an ethnic-based territorial dispute.

In its latest news conference, the Kenyan government did not say al-Shabab was directly to blame, referring to the attackers as an “unknown number of armed militia.” At an emergency briefing convened in Nairobi on Monday afternoon, Interior Minister Joseph Ole Lenku said armed men fled into the forest after a “fierce exchange of fire” with Kenyan security forces. “The red line has been crossed,” he said, adding the government is committed to dealing with “political incitement” and “ethnic profiling.”

Kenyans are frustrated their government is unable to identify the perpetrators and protect them from attacks. “We are so shocked and traumatized, of course we are in fear, we are scared to go into malls,” says Classin Omulo, 21-year-old student at the Kenya Polytechnic University College, in Nairobi. “You know, our President of our Republic, he was the one talking about security on the television, and the next thing in the morning we wake up to an attack,” says Omulo’s friend, 24-year-old Victor Kutswa. “It makes us think our security is not yet good.”

But the terror is unlikely to go away anytime soon, says Blanchard. “I think we were sort of all expecting some sort of attacks around the World Cup,” she said, “I don’t know if this will be the last.”

TIME South Africa

The Trailblazing Judge Who Will Decide Oscar Pistorius’ Fate

Oscar Pistorius Is Tried For The Murder Of His Girlfriend Reeva Steenkamp
Alon Skuy—The Times/Gallo Images/Getty Images Oscar Pistorius in the Pretoria High Court on May 6, 2014, in Pretoria, South Africa.

The fact that High Court Judge Thokozile Matilda Masipa is overseeing the trial of paralympian Oscar Pistorius, who stands accused of murdering his girlfriend Reeva Steenkamp, is a source of pride for many South Africans

It took balls for Martha Mbhele to say she wanted to be a lawyer. Growing up in apartheid South Africa on a white-owned farm in Lindley, a rural town in the country’s agricultural heartland, the practicing attorney and acting high court judge said black women in the legal system were unheard of. “If there was a lawyer it would be a white male,” the 40-year-old said, “there weren’t many role models one could look up to.”

Today, it couldn’t be more different. Over the next two weeks, High Court Judge Thokozile Matilda Masipa, a 66-year-old woman from an impoverished township, will hear the final arguments from the Oscar Pistorius defense team, as the Olympian stands trial for the murder of girlfriend Reeva Steenkamp. Between the gore and sensationalism of the Pistorius trial, the fact that Masipa is judging the case has been celebrated in a country where the law has traditionally been use to subjugate and disenfranchise the black majority. “That she has ascended and been placed in that role is symbolically powerful, it is a mark of how far we have come as a society in battling oppression,” says University of Pretoria political scientist Mzukisi Qobo. “It is confidence building imagery for many black people in South Africa.”

But Masipa’s high-profile position as a high court judge is not only significant for South Africans, but to countries around the world who struggle to achieve diversity on the bench. In the United States, for example, only four of the 112 justices to serve on the country’s highest court have been women. Meanwhile, in England, women hold just 22 percent of 3,575 judicial positions, according to 2012 Judicial Diversity statistics. That Masipa could reach the upper echelons of the legal profession in racially divided South Africa, however, is all the more remarkable given her background.

Born to a homemaker and a travelling salesman, Masipa was brought up in some of the poorest places in South Africa, one of the most unequal countries in the world. In 1966 — the year the “architect of apartheid” Hendrik Verwoerd was assassinated — she graduated from high school in Alexandra, a Johannesburg township. She worked as a social worker, then as a journalist, covering violent protests against the apartheid regime. She earned her law degree in 1990, four years before Nelson Mandela was elected to serve as the country’s first democratic President, and was soon called to the bar. “[To appoint] a black man in itself would have been astonishing, but a black woman, that’s mind-blowing,” says Susan Abro, a Durban-based attorney who worked with Masipa on the Electoral Court in the mid-2000s. “It just shows you exactly how highly she is regarded.”

Masipa was appointed to the high court in 1998, the second black woman in the country to sit on the court, which deals with serious crimes and high profile civil crimes. She believes the appointment of a diverse judiciary has helped the reputation of the courts. “In the past, people would stay away from court, they would rather sort things out themselves,” said Masipa in a 2008 documentary titled Courting Justice. “Now they see there are black people and women on the bench, they say well, maybe, if you want justice, the high court is where you go.”

That hasn’t always been the case. South Africa’s legal system, a hybrid of Dutch-Roman and English law, was adapted by the apartheid government to uphold whites-only rule. Though the jury system was in place at in the early 1900’s, juries — which were exclusively white — fell into disuse and were abolished in 1969 in favor of a judge-only trial. They were not reintroduced when apartheid fell: the country’s courts, stretched at the best of times, were unable to handle the financial and logistical changes necessary to operate a jury trial.

The decline of the jury gave rise to “assessors,” officials appointed by the judge to help adjudicate. For the Pistorius trial, Masipa appointed advocate Janette Henzen-Du Toit, an experienced assessor, and Themba Mazibuko, a recent law graduate. The assessors, like the judge, have been hands-off in the Pistorius trial. “[Masipa] really only interferes where she feels it’s necessary and she’s not playing for cameras,” says Annette Van der Merwe, associate law professor at the University of Pretoria. “She’s regarded as the ideal judge one would like to appear.”

Masipa’s past decisions show she is cautious and careful, but resolute in her judgements — especially when it comes to criminal cases. In 2000, she found Mokete Joseph Marobane guilty of murdering his wife, dismissing his claim he shot her in the head by mistake. That is “absurd,” she said, reported the South African Press Association. In 2009, Masipa convicted police inspector Freddy Mashamba for murdering his wife. “No one is above the law,” she said, “you deserve to go to jail for life because you are not a protector, you are a killer.” Last year, she sentenced a serial rapist and robber known as the “Axeman” to over 250 years in prison, saying “the worst in my view is that he attacked and raped the victims in the sanctity of their own homes where they thought they were safe.”

But Masipa remains an outlier even after sixteen years on the high court, as practising law in South Africa remains an uphill battle for most black women. “In this environment, the only way you can prove yourself is when you perform 200 per cent more than the other guys,” says Mbele, a practising attorney in Welkom and now an acting judge in the Free State High Court, in Bloemfontein. But, she says, “it helps that they have provided a person of Masipa’s calibre. Now we have a female judge that all of us can look up to.”

TIME South Africa

Oscar Pistorius Hires Dream Team Ahead of Murder Trial

Oscar Pistorius appears in the Pretoria Magistrates court on June 4, 2013, in Pretoria, South Africa.
Theana Breugem—Foto24/Gallo Images/Getty Images Oscar Pistorius appears in the Pretoria Magistrates court on June 4, 2013, in Pretoria, South Africa.

The trial of Oscar Pistorius, the fallen South African OIympian, over the death of his girlfriend begins next month. The star athlete, in the meantime, has set about recruiting an O.J. Simpson-style dream team of lawyers and forensic experts

When forensic geologist Roger Dixon was approached to work for Oscar Pistorius, he hesitated before giving his answer. “I almost turned it down,” says Dixon, “because of the past, you know, you sort of tend to be on one side.” For 18 years, Dixon was working with the South African Police Service (SAPS) forensic laboratory — his work included conducting fingerprint analysis on stolen gold — before taking a research position with the University of Pretoria in 2013. But Dixon says in his field there is no room for prejudice. “Metal is the only witness that never lies,” says the 54-year-old, “it never changes its story.”

Dixon is part of a big-ticket legal and forensic team hired by Pistorius, South Africa’s fallen athletic star, for his premeditated murder trial, beginning March 3 in Pretoria. Pistorius, now 27, shot his model girlfriend Reeva Steenkamp early Valentine’s Day morning last year. He says he had no intention to kill her, believing Steenkamp to be a violent intruder in his house. If convicted, Pistorius faces a life sentence, with a minimum of 25 years in prison.

To defend himself, Pistorius has hired the Evidence Room, an American forensic animation firm based in Cleveland, Ohio, that specializes in crime scene reenactments. The videos are Pixar meets murder trial: illustrating car crashes and murders with faceless cartoons of people in jagged geometric landscapes. “We don’t give opinions, we don’t say ‘this is how it happens,’ we describe the scene,” says Scott Roder, the 43-year-old chief executive officer of the Evidence Room. “That’s our job: to help people understand the bigger picture.”

Roder founded the business in 2003 after successfully using animations in court to demonstrate shootings. His work caught on as more and more lawyers preferred pressing play on a video to wasting time trying to explain a crime scene themselves. “It became very effective to have these animations,” says Roder. “Now we’re sitting in 2014 and it’s very routine to bring in an animation for a legal proceeding.” Today, Roder says he works on 100 cases a year across the world, sometimes charging upwards of over $10,000 a video. With one month to go before the Pistorius trial begins, it’s a tense time for Roder, a father of two. “Things are just so busy now,” he says, “it’s hard to get off task and talk about things.”

It’s the quality — and size — of the Pistorius legal and forensic team that makes the trial exceptional in the country, says Stephen Tuson, criminal law adjunct professor at University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg. “South Africa doesn’t have a strong tradition of the use of forensic evidence simply because there’s a lack of resources,” says Tuson, a practicing attorney. What’s a problem for many South Africans — the average black household earns 60,613 rand ($5,400) a year, a sixth of what whites earn — is not one for Pistorius. “They [the Pistorius team] have taken the time and trouble, and spent the money, on obtaining good forensic experts,” says Tuson. “There’s going to be a large reliance placed on forensic evidence that will be dissected, by both sides, down to the last molecule.”

Pistorius, whose personal wealth from athletic contracts is buttressed by his affluent extended family, was able to pursue some of the best forensic minds in the world. “They asked me,” says Henry Lee, a U.S. forensic scientist famous for testifying during the O.J. Simpson trial. But Lee, a man in his late seventies, declined. “I’ve already retired many times,” he says. (When asked if the Pistorius team approached Lee, Brian Webber, one of the athlete’s lawyers, said, “I don’t want to comment on that, certainly not to my knowledge.”) Ultimately, Pistorius ended up selecting a home-grown squad.

Pistorius hired Kenny Oldwage, an erudite lawyer famous for helping acquit the man accused of killing Nelson Mandela’s great-granddaughter Zenani in a drunk driving car crash, and the quick-witted Barry Roux, known for his fondness of wearing scarlet ties to court. The trial is going to be one of South Africa’s biggest legal showdowns, with the Pistorius team going up against prosecutor Gerrie Nel, a court veteran who won a corruption charge against ex-Interpol president and former South African police commissioner Jackie Selebi.

Within days of Steenkamp’s murder, private forensic pathologist Reggie Perumal appeared with the Pistorius team. Perumal, known for testifying on the death of Zimbabwe’s former army general Solomon Mujuru, reportedly attended Steenkamp’s autopsy — a rarity in South Africa. “Very few people can afford an independent investigation of someone,” says Steve Naidoo, a Durban-based private forensic pathologist, who says daily rates for forensic experts in South Africa can go as high as R15,000 ($1,300). “The amount of private work is few and far between,” he says. “Most people don’t have that opportunity.”

Two firearm experts, specialists in guns and bullets, are also working for Pistorius. One is Thomas Wolmarans, a former forensic expert with SAPS based in Pretoria. In 2007, Wolmarans testified on behalf of strip club owner Michael Jackson, accused of murdering a street child. (Wolmarans said there could have been a case of mistaken identity. Jackson was found guilty). “You do this type of work, you take it, and then you must forget about it,” says 67-year-old Wolmarans, “a case is a case.”

The other firearm expert is Jannie van der Westhuizen, whose services include “shooting scene reconstruction and re-enactments” and “blood splatter analysis,” according to his website. Westhuizen, a 45-year-old South African who has a slight American accent, worked for the State of South Dakota Forensic Science Laboratory and the Oakland County Sheriff’s Office in Michigan before setting up his private business in Pretoria. “My philosophy? Always be objective,” says Van der Westhuizen, “you cannot be partial, any kind of bias cannot influence your decision.”

For his part, Pistorius is “extremely overwhelmed” and is spending time with his family in anticipation of the trial, says the Pistorius family spokesperson Anneliese Burgess in an email. His feelings are understandable, given the hardball attitude of his forensic experts. As Dixon put it: “a forensic scientist is not on anybody’s side.”

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