Reeva Steenkamp and the real horror of gender-based violence

AneneIt was on my daily two hour commute to work, tweeting my regular #TaxiTales, that I came to learn of Reeva Steenkamp’s homicide on Thursday morning. Still shell-shocked from the gruesome rape and murder of 17 year old Anene Booysen just the week before, and only just starting to unpack the prevailing culture of rape and violence against womyn, we were presented with yet another death which would give face to and spotlight the high prevalence of femicide in our country. Yet, as I read the narrative emerging from the swelling media frenzy around the story, it became apparent that this story would not be felt or treated quite the same as any other.

Another womyn was dead; shot four times in the head, chest and arm, behind a bathroom door, and yet the media lens was firmly fixed on the distraught sporting icon whose life would be changed by this incident forever. As one of the most singularly important annual events on the South African political calendar unfolded, the beginnings of a celebrated hero’s fall from grace dominated the media. In the face of the thousands of womyn who are killed by their intimate partners each year, and one billion people the world over rising to protest this and other forms of violence against womyn, reams of newsprint and entire news bulletins were dedicated to what will likely be fixed in the South African social imaginary as the murder that shook a nation.

And in the meanwhile, a new narrative for this particular killing was taking root. The same voices which so readily professed on what made poor Black womyn like Booysen so vulnerable to succumbing to such violence, were at a loss as to what made Steenkamp so vulnerable to succumbing to a gun-killing. The same voices which had, heretofore, been silent on the exposition and hypersexualisation of deceased womyn public figures like Lebo Mathosa suddenly decried the same of Steenkamp on account of the trauma it might cause her loved ones and the disrespect it would cause her memory. Not quite fitting their carefully crafted tropes, the same voices which had fixed a propensity to this sort of violence to poor Black masculinity, instead began looking to the laxity of gun-laws and Steenkamp’s alleged killer’s dark and troubled past to explain the homicide. In the dominant discourse, this femicide was unlike any other and would be written and treated as such.

Reeva Steenkamp’s homicide is a tragedy through and through. Not only because her life was cut short and her loved ones devastated by a dreadful act of gun violence, but because hers is one of thousands of femicides recorded in this country annually. Even more tragic is that were it not for her partner and alleged killer’s high profile and their mutual class and racial stationing, hers would have likely gone by yet another in the innumerate nameless, faceless femicides that go unseen in our country.

A 2009 Medical Research Council study revealed 2363 reported femicides in that year alone. Of those female homicides, 57.4% were attributed to those womyn’s intimate partners and 17.1% were gun related. That’s, loosely, one womyn killed by her intimate partner every eight hours. Every eight hours!

We know, as a matter of course, that this high prevalence of femicide is not unlinked to the disparate and gendered relations between men and womyn as well as the prevailing and normalized culture of violence against womyn in South Africa. We know, as a matter of course, that the appalling frequency with which gender-based violence occurs only receives particular attention when it is as grizzly as Anene Booysens, or involves a prominent public figure like Steenkamp’s alleged killer. We also know, as a matter of course, that our moral outrage at this homicide will be tempered by our confusion at how a nice white sporting hero like this could possibly commit such an act violence. And that, unlike with most cases of femicide that occur in this country, the full basket of resources in the entire value chain of the criminal justice system will be channeled into the resolution of this case. The assault on womyn’s bodies by their intimate partners ends in a death every eight hours and we are transfixed with just one.

The real horror of gender-based violence doesn’t lie in the countless and extreme cases of violence against womyn which occur daily in this country. It lies in our quiet complicity in it. It is in how we normalise and so easily ignore gender-based violence in some contexts and are astonished by it in others. The real horror is in our unwillingness to believe that those sheltered and propped up by privilege are capable of it and our abject failure to place its countless victims at the heart of our concern.

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