Why the ‘Vigil for Reeva’ was the right thing to do

Elsa Maishman 27 October 2014

On Saturday 25th October, the CUSU Women’s Campaign organised a vigil ‘in solidarity with Reeva Steenkamp, her family, and all those that have been affected by her death.’ Seeing the event description, I was sceptical. I couldn’t see how a candle-lit vigil, however nicely done, was going to benefit anyone. Steenkamp could not know that we supported her. Furthermore, nobody personally affected by her death was going to find out that on a Saturday evening in small British university town, twenty students had gathered to mourn her. And what comfort would it be to them if they did? 

However, actually attending the event changed my mind. It was indeed nicely done – with candles, singing, and a definite sense of ‘solidarity’ or support for one another. Quite apart from that, it also forced me to question how this act of violence against a woman has been presented to the public. The event organiser pointed out that media attention has been so focussed on the famous athlete’s fall from grace that we hear very little about the woman who actually died. Many news reports of her death failed to even mention Steenkamp’s name, saying only that Oscar Pistorius had shot ‘his girlfriend’, and the Wikipedia biography of Steenkamp talks more about Pistorius than it does about her. It seems that this is yet another story that centres on a male subject, while the woman involved fades into the background. Participants at the vigil carried A4 printouts of Steenkamp’s face; in their words, the Women’s Campaign wanted to ‘show the world that we value the life of a woman, that Reeva will not be forgotten.’ While I appreciate the Women’s Campaign’s intent to counteract the media’s bias, their constant referral to Steenkamp by her first name made me uncomfortable. Pistorius was never Oscar. ‘Reeva’ was not a friend, and as such she deserves the respect of being referred to by her surname. It is important her name is not accessorised.

We cannot know the true facts of the case, or how much of an accident the killing really was. However, it seems to be clear that Steenkamp had previously expressed fear of her boyfriend Oscar Pistorius, and that his ex-girlfriend Elizabeth Taylor has subsequently reiterated this fear. Unlike many women who die at the hands of a male partner, Steenkamp wasn’t beaten or stabbed to death. She was shot, making it much more difficult to apportion blame. I don’t know if Pistorius meant to kill her or not, but I do know that Reeva Steenkamp was a woman, killed by her male partner. In South Africa a woman dies in this way every eight hours, and in the UK two women a week are killed by a partner. Steenkamp’s death, whether accidental or not, is part of a much bigger story, a story that the Women’s Campaign are right to make heard.  

A few minutes into the vigil, the organiser read out the names of all the women killed in the UK by a partner in the past year. The list went on and on – a seemingly endless toll of names, many of which never even made it into the newspapers. The vigil was held in honour of Reeva Steenkamp, and yet she is no more deserving than any of those other women. It took Pistorius’ celebrity to bring this issue of male violence into the public eye. 

I don’t think that Steenkamp’s family benefitted in any way from our vigil, and I don’t think that any of the participants needed help coming to terms with their grief at her death. But the Oxford English Dictionary defines a vigil as ‘a stationary and peaceful demonstration in support of a particular cause,’ not a service of consolation. Over a thousand South African men kill their partners every year- whatever the circumstances of Steenkamp’s death, they cannot all be manslaughter. Unlike Steenkamp’s, these killings barely register with the media, and until they are brought into the public eye, their female victims will continue to be forgotten.