JOHANNESBURG — A remarkably public feud erupted Tuesday within the family of Oscar Pistorius, the double-amputee Olympian charged with murdering his girlfriend, as the runner and his relatives distanced themselves from comments his father reportedly made about guns and crime in South Africa.
South Africa’s ruling party, the African National Congress, also waded into the family dispute. A spokesman for the party accused Henke Pistorius, the runner’s father, of racism for his observations reported in British newspapers about crime against white South Africans and the suggestion that the ANC government isn’t adequately protecting them.
The Pistorius family and the reputation management firm it has hired are working to head off any negative publicity or controversy that might possibly have a bearing on the outcome of the runner’s case, which could see him jailed for life if convicted of premeditated murder.
They quickly issued a statement early Tuesday morning saying the family “is deeply concerned” about the father’s interview that “doesn’t represent the views of Oscar or the rest of the Pistorius family.”
The Telegraph and Mirror newspapers quoted Henke Pistorius as saying the family owns handguns for self-defense. That is not unusual in South Africa. Two years ago, Police Minister Nkosinathi Emmanuel Mthethwa said the country of 49 million people had 1.7 million registered firearm owners holding 2.9 million guns.
Oscar Pistorius had a police license for the 9 mm pistol with which he shot Reeva Steenkamp in the early hours of Valentine’s Day.
The gun collectors’ club, the Lowveld Firearm Collectors Association, which the runner joined last April said Pistorius also owned but hadn’t yet licensed six other firearms for his gun collection.
South Africa’s Beeld newspaper reported that the runner’s father, three uncles and grandfather also own 55 firearms between them — ranging from handguns to rifles.
“Some of the guns are for hunting and some are for protection, the hand guns,” the Telegraph quoted Henke Pistorius as saying. “It speaks to the ANC government, look at white crime levels, why protection is so poor in this country, it’s an aspect of our society.”
“You can’t rely on the police, not because they are inefficient always but because crime is so rife,” the father said, according to the newspaper.
It said he had never used a gun in self-defense, but added: “That doesn’t mean I haven’t been hijacked, attacked. As a family, we value life much too much to produce guns at every opportunity we can use them.”
“I have been in positions where I can use a gun but we have been brought up in a way that we value the lives of others very highly,” he said.
Prosecutors charged Pistorius with premeditated murder for killing Steenkamp, saying the shooting followed an argument between the two. Pistorius said he mistook the 29-year-old model for a home intruder, fired shots at the door of his toilet and then discovered she was inside.
The family statement said: “Oscar Pistorius’s family is deeply concerned about the comments made by Oscar’s father, Henke Pistorius, to UK newspaper the Telegraph about the family using its weapons to defend themselves against crime in South Africa, and especially about his comments that the ANC government is not willing to protect white South Africans.”
It also quoted Arnold Pistorius, the runner’s uncle who has taken on a spokesman’s role following Steenkamp’s killing, as saying that “the Pistorius family own weapons purely for sport and hunting purposes.”
That, however, contradicted Pistorius’ own testimony to the magistrate who freed him on bail.
In an affidavit, the athlete known as “Blade Runner” for his carbon-fiber prosthetic running legs said he slept with his 9 mm handgun under his bed because “I have also been a victim of violence and of burglaries before.”
The South African police say they register more than 15,000 murders a year. The South African Police Service’s National Firearms Center said Pistorius registered the 9 mm for self-defense. Police issued him with his gun license on Sept. 10, 2010.
ANC spokesman Jackson Mthembu said it “rejects with contempt” the suggestion that the ANC government doesn’t adequately protect white South Africans against crime.
“Not only is this statement devoid of truth, it is also racist,” Mthembu said in a statement. “It is sad that he has chosen to politicize a tragic incident that is still fresh in the minds of those affected and the public.”
The family’s response to Henke Pistorius’ comments was issued by the reputation management firm, Vuma, it has hired to deal with the media. The statement said “Henke’s interview with the newspaper was unapproved by our media liaison team.”
Media reports have said Pistorius and his father were estranged before Steenkamp’s death. But the father was seen comforting the sprinter when he sobbed during his bail hearing.