Daily Maverick’s SA Person(s) of the year 2013: Anene Booysen and Reeva Steenkamp
It was a horrifying start to 2013. Two deaths, less than two months apart, which drew attention for very different reasons. The first, a young woman raped and murdered in an attack of such brutality that even violence-saturated South Africa could not turn its eyes away. The second, a young woman who dated a global sports icon, felled by four bullets shot by the hero himself. As this long, tumultuous year finally draws to a close, we pay tribute to Anene, Reeva and their countless fallen sisters: lest we forget. By REBECCA DAVIS.
How should we remember Anene Booysen? We have only one photograph of the 17-year-old Bredasdorp teenager in the public domain: a grainy, pixellated ID shot. We may scan it, searching for clues, but it tells us little. In it she is solemn, unsmiling, but then, ID photos demand such a pose.
The fact that there is only one such photograph available can only speak to the life of deprivation which we know Anene lived, where photographs are not casually, frequently taken and then tucked away in expensive frames and photo albums. It does not, as some suggested, speak of a girl who was not loved. You had only to see the grief etched in every line on the face of her foster mother, Corlia Olivier, to see the lie in that laid bare.
Thanks to a gruelling court case, we know more details about the night on which Anene Booysen died, 2nd February 2013, than we do about the rest of her 17 years of life. We know that she worked as a cleaner. Her foster mother once said that she preferred to stay home and watch TV than to go out partying. We know that she had friends, who said that she was cheerful and happy on the night of her murder. She didn’t have a boyfriend, but she may have had a crush on the man who killed her. Her name has become synonymous with her gruesome death; her life, left largely in darkness.
We have spoken her name many times this year: Google will give you 414,000 web hits. Before she was killed - before she was raped, disemboweled, and left to die on a construction site - we knew nothing of her. We have pressed her into service as an emblem of violence; as a symbol of senseless death; as shorthand for the brutality of the lives of the poor; as a flagbearer for the women and children who bear the scars of abuse in life or death. Yet she remains a cipher. When we say “Remember Anene”, we are invoking not the memory of a normal, lively 17-year-old, with hopes and dreams and plans like every other 17-year-old on the verge of bursting into adulthood. We are invoking instead a cautionary tale; a glimpse into the darkness at the margins and the centre of our fractured society.
What drives a person to do what was done to Anene? We cannot even honour her death with an answer to that question, though none could ever possibly satisfy. The man in jail for her rape and murder, a notch on the belt of the National Prosecuting Authority, denies that he killed her. There are many who feel a lingering disquiet about his sole conviction: could one man alone have inflicted such horror? If Anene’s parents were wealthy, perhaps they would marshal the services of a prominent private investigator, as the parents of another young woman who died too soon, Inge Lotz, did when they called in Piet Byleveld.
If this were another country, perhaps a rich and prestigious media organisation would devote many months and untold resources to the investigation of the story behind the story, as the New York Times did this year to illuminate the flawed inquiry into the mysterious death of a deputy sheriff’s girlfriend. But this is South Africa: there is little time, and too little money, and too many broken bodies.
When we think of Anene Booysen, we must also cast the spotlight on ourselves, and ask: Would we have poured out such horror at this young woman’s murder, had we not had the example of India staring us in the face from just weeks previously? If we had not seen a country rallied in anger at the gang rape and murder of one of their own daughters, would we have professed such shock and revulsion? There are many Anenes, after all. Even after Anene there have been Anenes, whose names and deaths have slipped past the public consciousness into an obscurity they will never now emerge from.
And even after we saw the crowds gather at New Delhi’s Jantar Mantar, demanding justice for their slain 23-year-old paramedical student – our Jantar Mantar moment never came. We never took to the streets in our thousands, body after body set on reclaiming the safety of our girls and our women. We talked, we lamented, we expressed regret, we pontificated from the safe distance of columns and op-eds.
And then another death came: one no less horrifying, but with the cachet of a famous white protagonist. We left Anene in her grave in Bredasdorp, and we turned to the leafy private estates of Pretoria – where, we remembered, violence and anger is still close at hand, and can cut short the lives of even those who seem to live the most charmed of existences.
How should we remember Reeva Steenkamp? Unlike Anene, we have no shortage of photographs to help us. Part of Reeva’s professional life was spent in front of the camera’s eye. Many of us have likely seen her in every conceivable pose. We have the benefit of TV footage - her stint on a reality show - to flesh out our sense of what this person was like. Her friends and parents have been interviewed continuously, pressed for their every memory. All accounts are unanimous, even allowing for inevitable post-death hagiography: she was lovely. A clean, bright soul who brought joy to the lives of many. In pictures, her beauty is luminous.
Yet initially, at least, the life of Reeva was dwarfed by the shadow of the famous man who shot her four times. Many early media reports, particularly from international tabloids, failed to mention her name at all in headlines: identified solely in relation to the sportsman she dated, she was simply ‘Oscar Pistorius’s Girlfriend’. Or, more frequently, ‘Oscar Pistorius’s Model Girlfriend’, allowing the press to run provocative bikini-clad photos of a woman whose body was not yet cold.
Many scrambled to seek immediate exoneration for the actions of an athlete in a country where athletes are hero-worshipped. Many still do. Sympathy which should be the overwhelming preserve of Reeva’s family and friends is still being heaped upon Oscar. The effects of the courtcase on his career have been lamented in a way highly reminiscent of the reaction to the teenage football players in Steubenville, USA, who were convicted of rape in May this year and subsequently mourned by CNN and other media outlets for the effect their prison time would have on their “promising” lives.
In death Reeva has escaped the fate of Anene, to immediately became a screen on which we project the issue of gender-based violence. When Anene was killed, the roots of structural violence against women were agonised over: what drives young men to do this? we asked, again and again. But we didn’t really mean all young men, it seems. The murder of Reeva cannot be compared, was the implicit message. That was different. That was a once-off, a freak accident, a hot-headed moment of madness. It was not the violence against women that stalks the streets of Bredasdorp. The economic and social context of Bredasdorp was endlessly interrogated for clues as to the etiology of such violence. By contrast, little attention was paid to the critical analysis of the context that gives birth to Oscar Pistoriuses.
With the court case approaching in February, you can be sure that it is Oscar, and not Reeva, who will be at the forefront of public consciousness. Like Anene, Reeva risks becoming simply the site for the violence of an angry man.
We will pore over coroner reports of where the bullets entered her body. We will deliberate, humiliatingly, over whether or not her bladder was empty when the first shot struck. It will be an objectification more intense than any in her modelling career.
But 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. 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. DM
Main Photo: The only known photograph of Anene Booysen
Photo: A mourner leaves, holding a picture of model Reeva Steenkamp, after her memorial service at the Victoria Park Crematorium in Port Elizabeth February 19, 2013. (REUTERS/Rogan Ward)