PRETORIA, South Africa — This week, Charl Johnson, a former neighbor of South African sprinter Oscar Pistorius, learned what it’s like to get on the wrong side of the former Olympian’s fan club.
Johnson was in the witness room waiting to testify at the North Gauteng High Court in Pretoria, where Pistorius is on trial for the alleged murder of his girlfriend, Reeva Steenkamp. Johnson’s wife Michelle Burger was first up on the stand, vividly recalling the early hours of Valentine’s Day last year, when the couple awoke to hear terrifying screams and gunfire.
At one point during Burger’s lengthy and intense cross-examination, defense lawyer Barry Roux read aloud her husband's phone number.
Soon Johnson and Burger were being deluged with text messages and calls from around the world, some of them angry and intimidating. “Why are you lying in court?” one caller asked. Johnson finally stopped picking up the phone.
Throughout Pistorius’ murder trial, which began Monday, he has had a small but particularly fervent band of supporters. They have backed him no matter the accusations, speaking out against charges that he murdered Steenkamp, a law graduate and model, and against anyone who suggests otherwise.
In court Pistorius has been supported every day by numerous family members, including siblings, cousins, aunts and uncles, who have sat quietly on the bench behind him offering gentle reassurances.
His online supporters — whom some call “Pistorians,” or the “Pistorian Guard,” though they aren't a clearly defined group — are just as dedicated, and anything but quiet.
While online identities are hard to pin down, these individuals don’t seem to actually know Pistorius. Nevertheless, they are outspoken about their love for the man dubbed the “Blade Runner,” and raring to take on all-comers.
“Oscar, my family and I will always be on your side and support you, no matter what. You really don’t deserve all this humiliation and hell you are going through,” wrote one commenter on the “Support for Oscar Pistorius” blog. The site also has a Facebook page. The banner at the top displays the sprinter’s image and the words “We’ll Stand by You.”
On Twitter, Pistorius supporters are quick to attack any critics. In their view, the athlete is the victim of a tragic mistake — that, as his defense argues, he mistook Steenkamp for an intruder at his home. Many admire him for his triumph over adversity, as a double amputee who ran at the 2012 London Olympics.
One busy Twitter account, @EmG-R-EmM, frequently attacks the late Steenkamp over her looks and the skimpy clothes she wore at fashion photo shoots. Others lament media coverage of the trial, accusing journalists of being biased and overly critical. “I’ve not seen one completely accurate news report on the trial so far today. Not surprised. Just disappointed,” tweeted one. “Close friends r supposed 2 stand up 4 each other not like Kevin Lerena stab Oscar in the back!!!” tweeted another, referring to professional boxer Kevin Lerena, one of the witnesses.
After being deluged by unwanted phone calls from Pistorius supporters, Johnson raised the issue in court Wednesday morning. Surprisingly the issue seemed to get little traction. Despite the harassment of two key witnesses, Justice Thokozile Masipa didn’t publicly reprimand Roux for having divulged the phone number, and the day rolled on.
Johnson and Burger had both asked that their images not be broadcast, as per court order, in a bid to protect their privacy. The couple had been reluctant to step forward as witnesses in the first place, fearing the intense media attention and public security surrounding the Pistorius case.
Instead, their private details have been aired on a South African satellite TV channel and around the world.
The trial continues.