South Africa

South Africa

Op-Ed: Bearing final witness to Reeva’s shattered body – should we?

This week Barry Steenkamp pleaded with Judge Thokozile Masipa to rule that forensic police photographs of his 29-year-old daughter’s shattered skull and bloodied corpse be made public. State Prosecutor Gerrie Nel too said it was time that the world witnessed the violence and damage caused by the four Black Talon bullets Oscar Pistorius pumped into Reeva Steenkamp through his toilet door. But in what appears to be a matter of victim-one-upmanship, should we violate Reeva’s privacy? By MARIANNE THAMM.

The depths of Barry and June Steenkamp’s grief and pain is unfathomable to those of us who have not lost a child or loved one to violent crime.

Testifying in aggravation of Pistorius’s sentence in the Pretoria High Court, Barry Steenkamp tried to contain in words that which is essentially unspeakable:

Her fear, her pain. I try to imagine it. I imagine if I stab myself in my heart with my diabetic needle I will feel her pain.”

Then a while later:

I want the world to see. I want the world to see the photos of the wounds inflicted on her. To know my daughter’s pain. To know what her last few seconds were like, so that this is stopped – so that others do not have to go through this ever.”

State Prosecutor Gerrie Nel and Steenkamp made the plea to Judge Masipa (which she later granted) shortly after Barry Roux, for Pistorius, orchestrated the spectacle of the crushed former athlete limping on his stumps, his head hung, weeping in front of the court and those millions watching proceedings on television.

Oscar the victim. Oscar in pain. Oscar humiliated. Oscar crushed. Oscar finished.

And then in what perhaps became an inadvertent competition for victimhood, the Steenkamps and Nel demanded that we witness and deal with their horror, the horror of their only child, the horror of what was left of her once physical form after Pistorius had shot and killed her.

Here, world, is the real victim, their request screams.

And while Barry Steenkamp’s request – his attempt to expose the pain he and June must live with forever – is understandable, should Reeva’s privacy in death be violated in this way?

Blunted by visual codes of violence, particularly violence against women which surround us in television series, music videos, films, photographs, fashion shoots, is there anything we can learn from seeing Reeva’s corpse? What of her right to privacy which has already been violated when Oscar Pistorius shot and killed her?

Reeva Steenkamp cannot give permission for millions to gaze upon her at her most vulnerable – in death. And if she cannot give permission, we should not look.

We do not need to see to understand the trauma. We were moved to swift anger just absorbing the details in the mammoth trial.

It is pertinent also that these are not photographs that were taken with the intention of world-wide or widespread distribution across a myriad platforms.

The photographs of Reeva’s corpse were taken with a specific purpose – to be used in the determination by experts not only of why she died, but how. The intention of the police photographer was to collect evidence, evidence to be weighed by those in the criminal justice system whose job it is to comb through the debris, the blood, the guts, the gore of a murder, and find a measure of a truth.

Barry and June Steenkamp have intimate knowledge of their daughter’s corpse and what it looked like after the bullets had ripped through her. They had to bury her.

There are times when we must collectively be forced to gaze into the abyss of horror – wars and genocide – when we must bear witness to the pain of others in order to try to stop a repeat of the madness.

The choice to look at the pictures of Reeva that have now been publicly released is yours. But know this: you cannot unsee them. Those of us who, during the course of our work, have had to look at police dockets, or who have come across gruesome forensic or autopsy photographs of murder victims, have always regretted it.

There is the jolt of reality when the dead are real and not fictional characters.

We have become habituated to violence and gore through popular American crime series. And while this case might feature protagonists who seem fictional – a disabled athlete who conquers the able world and his beautiful girlfriend – they are real.

Already we have been spectators throughout the trial which has drawn widespread international media interest. It is enough. We are familiar with Reeva Steenkamp’s terrifying last night alive, we know what she ate, what she wore, where she breathed her last breath.

Looking at Reeva’s corpse will not, as her parents hope, stop this from happening again. There is so much else about the Oscar Pistorius trial – the hyper masculinity, the privilege, the male entitlement, the love of guns and violence – that points exactly to where the problem lies. It is these toxicities we need to stare down and not a young, dead woman. DM

Photo: A photograph dated 27 June 2012 shows Reeva Steenkamp, named in the FHM 100 sexiest women 2012 pictured in Johannesburg, South Africa. EPA/Timothy Bernard / Independent Newspapers South Africa

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