“The first problem for all of us, men and women, is not to learn but to unlearn” – Gloria Steinem
The previous post in this series dealt with unrealistic expectations, the gradual isolation of the abusive relationship, and the effects of emotional instability. The story of Oscar Pistorius and Reeva Steenkamp shows how these patterns can play out and how each partner contributes to them and responds to them. As Steinem says, we have learned these ways of being; we weren’t born knowing them and they’re not inevitable. We can unlearn: we can change.
In this final post, we look at issues of social inequality, rigid assumptions about gender, and – last but not least – what can happen when abusive people, be they men or women, are not held accountable for their actions.
Couples at their best complement and support one another. Happy, successful couples are aware of differences between the partners and on the whole see these as strengths, whilst taking any difference that causes a problem as a challenge, even an opportunity to learn and to grow. When people say that successful relationships need “work”, this is usually what they mean – the work of understanding each other and of building respect for one another in sometimes trying circumstances.
In a relationship that is abusive or potentially so, differences between the partners are experienced as liabilities, not strengths (Rules 3 & 5, Beliefs a & c). If these differences involve unequal access to power and resources, it is particularly problematic. In an abusive relationship power is always being contested one way or another, so any built-in advantage or disadvantage potentially becomes a contentious or even explosive issue. A perpetrator who senses disadvantage will be more insecure and unstable; a target will be disempowered in terms of getting help or simply getting away.
At first glance, Oscar had the lion’s share of power in this relationship. When the couple first met, he was a massive global brand, earning millions each year, who came from a well connected and very wealthy family. Reeva had an ordinary family background and aside from her private-school education at St Dominic’s Priory, had few of the privileges Oscar had always known (though she was still very privileged in comparison to most South Africans).
But dig a little deeper and the advantages are not so clearly stacked in Oscar’s favour. Reeva was slightly older than Oscar, and experienced in relationships – including a long term relationship with Warren Lahoud which only broke up because neither was ready to settle. This in itself made Reeva different from previous girlfriends who were relatively young and inexperienced. He wasn’t so readily in charge of the relationship with Reeva, a grown woman who knew her own mind. When previous girlfriends – notably Melissa Rom and his first high-school sweetheart Victoria Miles, had tried to stand up to Oscar, it had not ended well. There had been “nasty” arguments, and reckless behaviour. After one “blistering” phone row with Victoria at 3 am (clearly not Oscar’s best time of day), Oscar tried to drive from Durban to Jo’burg to settle matters with her. He dozed off and crashed his car.
It could also be relevant that Reeva had loved Warren deeply and may not have wanted to commit again so soon. She wasn’t struggling financially, was enjoying her life in an expanding social circle, had recently made a break into TV with the Tropika show, and she was helping to support her parents back home in Port Elizabeth.
As a family provider, Reeva functioned as a responsible adult, while Oscar (when not fully engaged in training) lived the life of a rich playboy – surrounded by vaguely juvenile, if expensive, toys. That would certainly be fun for a while, but once the novelty wears off a man like that might not be ‘marriage material’ to a mature woman. In short, Oscar was positioned for emotional dependency, and Reeva was not. And as we’ve seen, emotional dependency in a man who lives by dominant notions of masculinity leads to shame; and shame leads to anger.
There may also have been intellectual disparity. Oscar enrolled for a Business Management degree in 2006 but wasn’t able to finish, whereas Reeva graduated top of her Law class and had options for a legal career. Oscar also made most of his money from sponsorships, modelling and promoting, but aside from vague dreams of being an architect or designer he had no other plan beyond his next race. For Reeva, living the high life may have been fun, but wasn’t her whole plan for her life. Through her work with Avon Cosmetics (and perhaps also her legal training) she’d already developed an interest in women’s issues and, tragically, was due to give a presentation about this the day she died.
Finally, one could look at emotional advantage – the kind that builds significant “people skills” and forms of intelligence that are important in today’s world. Reeva didn’t have the easiest upbringing but her family is close and her parents stayed together, though not without some strain along the way. She experienced the protective love of both parents and the personal example of both of them, as well as other family members and a wider community. Oscar, though materially more privileged, had a “hard life” emotionally speaking. His father bullied him, his parents split, at a young age his mother died. He wasn’t allowed to be weak, to express fear or pain or – horror of horrors – to “give up”. He was taught to have no pity on himself, to run until his stumps bled and then run some more and finish the race smiling. The Medical Research Council has found that a hard upbringing like this is common among men who injure and kill their intimate partners. It breeds resentments that run very deep.
Such differences in long-term social advantage cause tension around rigid gender-role expectations. It’s one thing to assert patriarchal authority when you have the personal ‘gravitas’ to go with it, but Oscar didn’t. Like many a loud-mouthed adolescent, he could intimidate people – but couldn’t make them respect him. Even the athlete sharing his quarters at the London Olympics asked to move out because “Oscar was always shouting at people on the phone”.
Reeva, as everyone knows by now, was a popular person. She had a following on social media and many friends, both male and female. Reeva was in demand, not because she was famous or rich, but because people who actually knew her also liked her. Beauty helped – of course it did – but Reeva was about so much more than good looks.
Oscar, for his part, was adored by sports fans, admired by (some) other athletes, surrounded by hangers-on, but apparently had few honest friends to keep him grounded. By 2012 his regular companions were “the Southern Jo’burg skinhead gang type”. Oscar seemed to be reverting to type – following his father’s example as an aggressive bully, a frontiersman poseur whose masculinity is defined by his (well armed) mastery of the land, wildlife, black people, and women, as well as by his refusal to submit to any law he didn’t make himself. Like Oscar, Henke Pistorius was obsessed with guns and occasionally careless with them – having once shot himself in the groin by mistake. Satirist Ben Trovato mocked the Pistorius family ethos in March 2013 after Henke made a particularly blundering statement to the Press: “I shot nine elephants, six hippos, three giraffes and about 450 springbok. And a tortoise. Jislaaik, this hunting business is fun!”
Meanwhile, prior to her relationship with Oscar, Reeva was building her own brand as the very definition of “class” in South African eyes. She had a robust, irreverent sense of humour ‘like a guy’; she cared about everyone, not just the rich and famous. She had dreams, but they were for others as well as for herself. Oscar was feted by Mandela for his athletic achievements – but Reeva was more in tune with Madiba’s vision of a South Africa at peace with itself and the world.
In a way they were yin and yang; extremes of masculine and feminine ways of being in the world. Reeva operated best as part of a network, a web of caring and communication – this is typical of many, perhaps even most, women. Oscar, in stark contrast, seemed to see his life as an epic solo battle with himself and his guns at the centre (perhaps he still does). This is a masculine ideal though fortunately many (perhaps most) men manage to outgrow it eventually and some don’t buy it in the first place. But for Oscar and Reeva, the bottom line was that being “amped to the max” made Oscar feel alive whereas Reeva needed human connection. They were attracted because of their differences, but for the same reason lacked common ground and weren’t likely to make each other happy how ever powerful the attraction between them may have been.
Lastly: violence is more likely when perpetrators don’t believe they will be held accountable. Non-accountability runs through Oscar’s life like fungus through blue cheese, though former friends say he wasn’t always this arrogant, entitled man who expects others to make things easier for him. The alleged restaurant incident where he assumed he knew how to hold his friend’s gun, only to almost shoot him in the foot and ask Fresco to take responsibility, is the worst but not the only example (Oscar denies this but court records would seem to confirm it).
In truth, Oscar has often been let off the hook and not just by his family. He’s had favourable treatment from police, and ‘pulled strings’ at the highest level. If various claims are true, in the past he’s committed offences of speeding on the highway, crashing a boat whilst drunk, assaulting a woman, foul language in public, firing a loaded gun in a public place (twice), keeping illegal ammunition, and threatening to break a man’s legs.
Yet a Cabinet Minister backed him when he wanted to join the South African individual sprinters – ending the Olympic hopes of Simon Magakwe, an athlete with far more right to be there. An elite police unit, The Hawks, somehow got involved on his behalf in his spat with Marc Batchelor and Quinton van der Burgh… Who wanted to notice his faults when Oscar was at his zenith? He could do no wrong in the eyes of an adoring public, but now he’s a fallen icon and few people remember the good he tried to do, the truly beautiful side of Oscar – the Oscar that Reeva saw and wanted to be with.
Such is the fickle nature of hero-worship, but even now the Press insists on presenting Oscar as a mythic figure, a Greek tragedy. His histrionic crying and vomiting in the dock is minutely reported, but his stony expression as he stares at State witnesses, the moments of what looks like dissociation, and the markedly unpleasant smile – almost a sneer – that sometimes crosses his face are not mentioned. It seems that Oscar has not spent the past year facing unpleasant realities, such as ‘what hollow-point bullets do to bodies’. Florid expressions of remorse are not to be confused with genuine accountability.
Meanwhile, Reeva’s nearest and dearest also hear and see these horrors, and yet keep their dignity – because, I suspect, they’ve been talking, grieving, and processing what happened in the past twelve months, insofar as this is possible without a story that makes sense.
In a sad moment of early 2012, Reeva tweeted: “I’m so disappointed in myself today…I never learn from the past. How do you grow if you never learn?” Her question is one that all of us, as a nation, could take to heart. How can we become better, if we never learn? And how can we learn, if we won’t face the truth about the choices we make including the people we choose to represent us?
The Mail & Guardian published an op-ed piece on Oscar Pistorius, subtitled “South Africa bears and breeds these men”. It’s true – we do produce them and we do raise them. There are many abusive, dangerous, violent young men and many injured, terrified and murdered women, every day that passes there are more. We appear fascinated by the ongoing court case – but as a nation, we can follow the murder trial day in and day out, and still learn nothing if we refuse to ask the difficult questions or face the answers about our nation that stare us in the face.
The bitter love story of Oscar and Reeva – with its undercurrents of violence and fear, passion and idealism, heartbreak and missed opportunities, is passing into history. How it is told and retold after this depends on the outcome of the trial, but not on that alone. It won’t be limited to the ‘case for the state’ or the ‘case for the defence’, because the last four months of Reeva’s life carry richer and more valuable meanings for men and women in South Africa, than her last minutes.
The truth is never pure and rarely simple, but Reeva wanted South Africa to understand a simple dream: every one of us doing something in our own sphere of influence about gender violence. She never got to give her talk that day, but she’s talking now if we will only listen, and open our hearts.
As a nation, as a culture, we make ourselves up. Our society shapes us – but we shape it, too, every day. This series of studies is my way to honour Reeva, to understand the struggles she and Oscar faced in their relationship, and to reflect her visions of love.
Thank you for making the journey with me. What are your ideas? Join the discussion, I’d love to hear from you. Below is a list of references that I have used. If you notice one that I have left out, please let me know and I will include it.
- Gender Discourse, Awareness and Alternative Responses for Men in Everyday Living. Gaddis, Kotzé, and Crocket, New Zealand Journal of Counselling, Vol 22, 2007
- The shooting star and the model. Vanity Fair: June 2013. http://www.vanityfair.com/culture/2013/06/oscar-pistorius-murder
- I could have saved Reeva. City Press: February 24, 2013. http://www.citypress.co.za/news/i-could-have-saved-reeva/
- Warning signs: Are you in an abusive relationship? DoSomething.org http://www.dosomething.org/tipsandtools/warning-signs-are-you-abusive-relationship
- Oscar Pistorius and Reeva Steenkamp: Cosmo investigates the death that shocked the world, Cosmopolitan, 26 February, 2014. http://www.cosmopolitan.co.uk/lifestyle/big-issue/oscar-pistorius-reeva-steenkamp-death#ixzz2w2nCTUaO
- Open letter to Henke Pistorius. Ben Trovato, “The Whipping Boy”, 12 March 2013. http://bentrovatowhippingboy.wordpress.com/2013/03/12/an-open-letter-to-henke-pistorius-father-to-oscar-defender-of-the-faithless/