‘Fat, bearded and a smoker’: Oscar Pistorius may be free, but his career is over

Oscar Pistorius
Pistorius has been told he will be released after serving nine years for the murder of his girlfriend, Reeva Steenkamp - ALON SKUY/Getty Images

South Africa’s disgraced Olympian Oscar Pistorius has been granted parole and will be released from jail on Jan 5.

The amputee ‘blade runner’, who won six Paralympic gold medals and reached the semi-finals of the 200-metre sprint at the 2012 London Olympics, was told he could walk free after serving nine years for the murder of his girlfriend, Reeva Steenkamp, in 2013.

The decision marks a new chapter in a case that continues to enthral South Africa and the world beyond, and generated one of the trials of the century.

But it is another painful blow to the family of the woman he killed, who believe he has never told the truth about the night he shot their daughter. “Only Oscar knows the truth,” said her father, Barry Steenkamp, earlier this year in his last interview before the 80-year-old died in September. “If he had told the truth in the beginning, he would’ve felt a lot better. People would’ve forgiven him quicker”.

Pistorius was on top of the world when in the early hours of Valentine’s Day 2013 he fired four shots through a bathroom door, killing Steenkamp, who was inside.

Reeva Steenkamp with Pistorius – they had been together just three months when she was killed
Reeva Steenkamp with Pistorius – they had been together just three months when she was killed - AFP

The previous year he had competed in London on his customised carbon fibre prostheses against the world’s fastest able-bodied athletes. The triumph of the boy who had two legs amputated below the knee in childhood because of a congenital condition became an inspiring example of humanity’s ability to overcome a disability.

In South Africa, a country that embraces unifying heroes, he was an idol.

With his position as favoured son, it was unsurprising he was soon going out with one of the country’s favourite daughters, model and television personality Reeva Steenkamp, who was the face of an anti-bullying campaign.

What appeared a gilded life of red carpet events ended only three months into their relationship, when he opened fire in his Pretoria home with his 9mm pistol.

Prosecutors alleged Steenkamp, then aged 29, was killed while hiding in the toilet after a heated row.

Pistorius, the only witness, claimed it was a terrible accident: he was unaware his girlfriend had got up to go to the lavatory and he had mistaken her for a dangerous intruder behind the door.

The trial transfixed South Africa. It was the first in the country to be televised and daily proceedings were pored over at prime time.

Barry Steenkamp, who died in September giving evidence in court at Pistorius’s trial
Barry Steenkamp, who died in September, giving evidence in court at Pistorius’s trial - pixel8000

“People were angry with Oscar,” recalls David O’Sullivan, a prominent journalist who hosted a nightly television panel of legal pundits. “He was supposed to fly our flag, and none of that was racial: blacks and whites said the same. They also felt betrayed by Oscar as murder is so rife in South Africa.”

As the hearing went on, South Africans debated each disclosure and every fine legal point.

“When the lawyers and I went for a drink, people stopped them for autographs and selfies,” says O’Sullivan.

The high-profile case also highlighted that the country’s epidemic of murder, and in particular its high levels of violence against women, did not just affect townships, says Lisa Vetten, of the Gender Violence and Urban Transformation Project at the University of Johannesburg.

“People started taking an interest and learnt that this didn’t only happen in poor black communities,” she says. “Six women are murdered every day in South Africa.”

After months of evidence, Judge Thokozile Masipa, one of the country’s first black female judges, appeared to believe Pistorius’s account and convicted him of culpable homicide, a charge comparable to manslaughter.

June Steenkamp, centre, refused to meet Pistorius in prison, saying she was afraid of what she would do if she confronted him
June Steenkamp, centre, refused to meet Pistorius in prison, saying she was afraid of what she would do if she confronted him - Johan Pretorius/AP

Yet her decision was then overruled by the supreme court, which found that even if Pistorius believed he was shooting at an intruder, he must have reasonably foreseen that the person behind the door would die. As such, he was guilty of murder under the principle of dolus eventualis, an obscure legal term, which quickly entered South African vocabulary.

Chris Greenland, a retired judge who was one of the many who each night dissected the case on television, explains: “If someone fires at birds in your garden, for example, knowing that there is a school playground in the background, it can then be argued that the shooter did foresee that he/she might also kill a child.”

When Judge Masipa gave Pistorius six years, the supreme court again intervened, calling the term “shockingly lenient”. Pistorius was eventually jailed in November 2017 for 13 years and five months, taking into account time already served.

Pistorius has not been pictured since. Unconfirmed reports from his time inside Atteridgeville prison have suggested he has grown a beard, gained weight and taken up smoking, making him unrecognisable from the elite athlete he once was.

Earlier this year the constitutional court ruled the authorities had calculated wrongly when he should be eligible for parole. Confusion over when his sentence started meant he should have been eligible several months previously.

Before he died, Barry Steenkamp declared that he had no objection if the authorities granted parole, though he acknowledged his mind might change as the date approached. He had met Pistorius in prison as part of a restorative justice programme, but his wife, June, refused, saying she was afraid of what she would do if she confronted him.

She did not attend today’s parole hearing either. Instead, June Steenkamp wrote a letter to be read at the meeting, detailing the devastating personal consequences of Pistorius’s crime and saying she did not believe the ex-athlete was rehabilitated.

“Rehabilitation requires someone to engage honestly, with the full truth of his crime and the consequences thereof. Nobody can claim to have remorse if they’re not able to engage fully with the truth,” she said.

Despite this, officials ruled that Pistorius could be released. As part of his parole, which will last until Dec 5, 2029, he will be forbidden from leaving his area of Pretoria without permission, and obliged to attend an anger-management programme and to do community service.

Pistorius cannot return to his career as an athlete, but could take up sports coaching
Pistorius cannot return to his career as an athlete, but could take up sports coaching - AP

Family sources told The Telegraph that Pistorius would live with his uncle, Arnold Pistorius, a wealthy property developer, at his Waterkloof mansion in Pretoria. Now aged 37, however, Pistorius’s career as an athlete is over. Yet he may still be able to find employment in coaching, or elsewhere in the sports industry, sources close to the case predict. He may also choose to study.

If he cannot overcome his notoriety in his homeland, after parole ends Pistorius may also follow the example of many South Africans and choose to emigrate. He has two siblings thought to be abroad, including a sister, Aimee, reported to be living in London.

However, if Pistorius is today contemplating his future, June Steenkamp, now widowed and reportedly in difficult financial circumstances, is left with the past and her daughter’s legacy.

Originally from Blackburn in Lancashire, she has launched a foundation in Reeva’s name to highlight violence against women and children. Speaking earlier this year for the 10th anniversary of her daughter’s death, she admitted each day was hard; she was still grieving.

The 78-year-old said then: “We just love her so much and miss her. Part of our life is gone, but we will see her one day and that’s what we look forward to.”