CAPE TOWN, South Africa — She was blonde, wealthy and a supermodel, but now, she has somehow become a figurehead for South Africa’s most disenfranchised. As the country and the world watch the Oscar Pistorius trial, questions of gender violence abound, and many are finding a platform of empowerment behind the publicity it has brought to the issue.
Since February 14, 2013, when she was tragically shot by her Olympic athlete boyfriend, Pistorius, Reeva Steenkamp has been invoked as a rally call for justice by thousands of women across the country, drawing crowds of thousands to the courthouse every day in protest for stricter laws for violence against women. The Women’s League of the Governing African National Congress is just one among many political institutions asking for justice for Reeva, and for women in general.
Many of the women standing by her image are black, low-income, uneducated, from rural townships and otherwise unprotected in the system that abuses them. The message Steenkamp seems to send is that violence can happen to anyone, across racial and class boundaries, and that something desperately needs to be done about it.
To answer the question of how those in poverty can identify with Steenkamp, who had it all, Emily, a young black waitress following the trial on her lunch break responds, “She was a woman, and I am a woman.”
“Reeva socialized across race lines,” states Kenosi Mechapa, the spokeswoman for the Department of Women, Children and People with Disabilities, who also remarks on how she spoke the African language, Xhosa.
For all women, South Africa is a dangerous place to live, having the highest rates of gender violence in the world. A 2013 study by the country’s Medical research Council (MRC) exposed that a woman is killed by domestic violence every 8 hours, and more than 1/3 of girls and women have experienced some form of violence, either physical or sexual, before age 18.
Even more frustrating and sad is that most are cases of ongoing abuse, inflicted by women by significant others and family members, and even within schools by teachers. Poverty is a huge factor of this, as lack of financial autonomy traps women in these abusive situations and causes them to be dependent on their abusers. With education systems that are clearly unsupportive, as well, this cycle of poverty and violence is a difficult one to break.
The political and legal system also appears to be against these survivors, most likely due to the low social position of those involved. Statistics show that in the country, someone gets raped every four minutes, which totaled to 66,196 sexual violence crimes reported last year. A shockingly low number of 4,500 of those incidents ever received a conviction. The message that many South African women are drawing from this is that the government has done nothing and cares nothing for them, and should be held accountable.
The root of the problem appears to be the male population, a quarter of whom are estimated to have abused someone, and a culture of misogyny. Experts argue that South Africa’s gender violence issue has roots in colonialism, and later apartheid, when hoards of men were abused and humiliated by their white employers and slave owners, effectually stripping them of their collective sense of masculinity. Now, a hyper-aggressive re-assertion has manifested itself as the common, cultural response.
Colonial policies and ideological views still linger along income lines, and continue to deepen the entrenchment of emasculation within South African men. A stark wealth disparity and high unemployment means that a large proportion of men feel economically inadequate, and turn to the other outlets to gain a sense of control. Solutions to global poverty, education and employment should be explored as recourse, for gender violence is one of its most dire results.
Tragically, Reeva Steenkamp was not the only woman in South Africa to be murdered for these systematic reasons. However, she is vital because of the light her fame shines on this issue, giving voice to those otherwise silenced by the country’s income, class and race politics.
Just the day after her death, Steenkamp was planning on attending a rally for Anene Booysen, the 17-year-old South African girl raped and murdered in a rural town outside of Cape Town. Even when alive, she sought solidarity with impoverished, non-white female survivors of abuse.