TV

Reeva Steenkamp deserves to be more than a footnote in Oscar Pistorius’ story

The Trials Of Oscar Pistorius focuses heavily on how the sportsman’s crimes put an end to his career. What it fails to do, though, is mourn the life of Reeva Steenkamp, the courageous and intelligent woman he murdered.

Reeva Steenkamp was a model, law graduate, television presenter, and women’s rights activist, dedicated to using her profile to campaign against domestic violence in South Africa.

But, when she was shot and killed by her violent, allegedly controlling boyfriend on 14 February 2013, the press forgot all about what had come before. 

Instead, it was as if her life had begun and ended in that bathroom.

Referring to her as a “model girlfriend” – and just one of Oscar Pistorius’ many achievements – tabloids penned huge spreads about how the Paralympic athlete had overcome his disabilities to become a world-famous athlete in reports about Steenkamp’s death.

One newspaper even went so far as to illustrate the story with an outsized photograph of Steenkamp in a bikini. They sexualised and objectified her, even as her corpse lay in a Pretoria morgue.

And the headline, reading like something from a horror movie, was emblazoned above the photograph of Steenkamp pulling the zip down on her bikini top: “3 shots. Screams. Silence.”

Reeva Steenkamp has, like so many other women, become an invisible victim in the patriarchal narrative framed around “fallen hero” men.
Reeva Steenkamp has, like so many other women, become an invisible victim in the patriarchal narrative framed around “fallen hero” men.

At the time, The Commission for Gender Equality (CGE) in South Africa slammed the media’s sexist reporting, drawing attention to the fact that they had reported the incident “in a way that shifts attention away from the core issue of gender based violence, and seeks to focus attention on Mr Pistorius’ iconic and role model status.

“The consequence of this style of reporting is to present Ms Steenkamp’s death as an unfortunate aberration rather than part of a broader pattern of gender-based violence in South Africa.”

Almost a decade later, though, and it seems little has changed. Because The Trials of Oscar Pistorius, a controversial new documentary by the BBC, has been widely criticised for charting the highs and lows of its subject’s life in minute detail. 

“If you intend to watch more of this #OscarPistorius documentary, don’t,” reads one tweet about the series.

“Barely a word from his family about the woman he murdered. He was out of control and arrogant beyond belief. Their attempts to humanise his atrocious crime cut no mustard here.”

“The Trial of #OscarPistorius is absolutely disgraceful. Every single excuse these cretins can think of. Your brother, son, friend is a murderer. Enough,” says another.

And still one more says: “Is this #OscarPistorius documentary just giving a million excuses as to why he did it? Poor Oscar?! ‘I’ve never seen anyone so devastated’ Really?! Try Reeva’s parents.

“HER NAME WAS REEVA STEENKAMP.”

The show’s critics aren’t wrong. Throughout The Trials Of Oscar Pistorius’ four episodes, we learn all about its subject’s medical history. We are told repeatedly that he broke countless boundaries throughout his sporting career. We are informed of his many achievements and personal bests. We are goaded into sympathising with him over the death of his mother. And we are seemingly urged, too, to separate his successes from his crimes.

Steenkamp, sadly, is shown no such respect. Indeed, after watching one full hour of the docuseries, all we are really told about her is that she had a “lovely smile”. And very little care or attention is paid to the fact that, during the murder trial of Pistorius, the prosecution quoted a text message sent by Steenkamp to the athlete in which she said: “I’m scared of you sometimes and how you snap at me.”

She has, like so many other women, become an invisible victim in the patriarchal narrative framed around “fallen hero” men. 

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“Once again, the spotlight is focused on a man who, for all his public show of tears in the witness box at his trial, has never shown enough respect for my daughter’s memory to admit to murdering her in cold blood,” Steenkamp’s mother, June, writes of the documentary (which she declined to be a part of) in The Telegraph.

“This entire sorry saga has again forced us to watch as our daughter – a woman who was as accomplished and caring as she was beautiful, a law graduate who passionately advocated to end male violence against women – remains defined instead as a victim.”

In framing the narrative entirely around her murderer, The Trials Of Oscar Pistorius hasn’t just failed Reeva Steenkamp: it has failed all victims of femicide and gender-based abuse.
In framing the narrative entirely around her murderer, The Trials Of Oscar Pistorius hasn’t just failed Reeva Steenkamp: it has failed all victims of femicide and gender-based abuse.

Steenkamp deserves to be more than a footnote in her killer’s story. She should be remembered as the woman who, despite breaking her back in a horse-riding accident during her final year at Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University, still graduated at the top of her class in 2005. Who hoped to qualify as a legal advocate before she was 30, and planned to start a law firm to help abused women.

She deserves, too, to be remembered for the hours she spent campaigning against gender-based violence. Indeed, she was due to give a speech on emotional abuse at a South African school on the day of her murder.

“I hope that you all had an amazing Valentine’s Day and you were spoiled with love and roses and chocolates,” Steenkamp had planned to tell the teenage girls sitting before her.

“Go home and tell your parents, your siblings and your neighbours that they are appreciated and you will go to bed with a happy heart and an open mind for the future.”

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In framing the narrative entirely around her murderer, The Trials Of Oscar Pistorius hasn’t just failed Steenkamp: it has failed all victims of femicide and gender-based abuse.

Why? Because in presenting him as a complex individual, it has encouraged armchair psychologists to question his mental health (over a third of the public already believes that people with a mental health problem are likely to be violent – despite the fact that people with severe mental illnesses are more likely to be victims, rather than perpetrators, of violent crime). It has urged them to consider his side of the story. It has incited them to show understanding and empathy to a convicted murderer, even.

Steenkamp, though? She, like so many other murdered women, is once again collateral damage, her entire existence reduced to the role she played in a “complicated” man’s life.

And the impact of this decision is incredibly dangerous. Because, in a world where we still struggle to nail domestic violence convictions, it serves only to normalise violence against women.

As one disgusted viewer of the documentary tweeted: “So many women in the world seem to be still in the wrong place, saying the wrong thing, speaking to the wrong person, wearing the wrong thing, achieving too much, being too beautiful, being too clever, choosing the wrong person. The list goes on.”

With this in mind, then, we echo the words shared in the Daily Maverick when it named Reeva Steenkamp and Anene Booysen (a South African teenager who was brutally raped and murdered) as SA Persons Of The Year in 2013.

“Let us remember Reeva, the person. Let us mourn less for the loss of a sportsman’s career and more for the squandering of the life of a vibrant, intelligent 29-year-old whose future was just beginning to take the shape she had dreamed of,” the tribute read.

“Let us remember a woman of deep empathy, who we know to have been moved and horrified by the death of Anene Booysen, just weeks before her own.

“Let us remember Reeva, and Anene, and the countless other women whose deaths and rapes are considered so unexceptional that they warrant not even a single mention in a newspaper.

“Let us remember them as people, and not simply as the statistics we bear as a mark of national shame.”

If you are worried about your relationship or that of a friend or family member, you can contact the Freephone 24-hour National Domestic Violence Helpline, run in partnership between Women’s Aid and Refuge, on 0808 2000 247 or visit www.womensaid.org.uk.

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