Today is Valentine’s Day — a day when capitalist consumption and heteronormative myth-making are in full swing: red roses (for the women, of course), images of happily-ever-after coupling (mostly of a heterosexual bend), and the coming together of brand “Hetero-Love” in a frenzy of consumerism and schmaltz. This day is yet another consummation of a particular social order. The same social order that, a year ago, oversaw the death of Reeva Steenkamp.
Every eight hours, in South Africa, a woman is killed by her intimate partner. Steenkamp was 1 of 3 women to meet this end on Valentine’s Day in 2013. The other women remain nameless to most of us. Valentine’s Day is a reminder of the violence that is integral to heteronormativity and the performances of “man” and “woman” it engenders.
Late last year, on Reconciliation Day, I said the following in a public address on gender violence:
“In preparing this address I thought of Anene Booysen … of Reeva Steenkamp … of Zoliswa Nkonyana. All three killed because they were women, and in Zoliswa’s case because she was also a lesbian. They were women of different races, different classes and sexualities. Yet each of their lives was ended because of certain gender power relations. These gender relations also kill men. The hierarchies that exist between men require violence to be maintained and so men too are its victims. Male homicide rates and intimate-partner femicide in South Africa are among the highest in the world.”
Thereafter I received a troubling, correspondence challenging my assertion that Steenkamp’s killing had something to do with her being a woman and Pistorius a man. The thrust of my critic’s rebuttal was as follows:
• We cannot be sure that Steenkamp was killed intentionally.
• The case is still sub judice and so we shouldn’t form an opinion on Pistorius’s actions.
• Because of Pistorius’s wealth, power, and celebrity status, and because the courts may wish to send a strong signal against gender violence, he might be unfairly made an example of in a context where gender violence is endemic.
• We don’t really know what happened when Steenkamp was shot.
Is it coincidence that my critic’s arguments work to safeguard Pistorius from guilt? To presume Pistorius’s innocence, to assert that he deserves to be protected in the court of public opinion, and to imply that there is no conceivable basis (yet) for doubting his version of events, has something to do with the fact that Pistorius is a white, heterosexual, wealthy man. It also has something to do with his victim being a woman. Let’s consider the assertions of my interlocutor because, after all, they reflect widely held beliefs about gender.
First, “we cannot be sure that Steenkamp was killed intentionally”: To reduce understandings of Steenkamp’s killing to a consideration of the intention of her killer risks decontextualising and dehistoricising her death. A set of social conditions makes the rapes and murder of women a daily reality in our country. The individualisation of violence deflects from the social practices that shape it, practices in which gender, among other markers, is deeply implicated. These conditions relate to sex, gender, race and class. They also relate to the hierarchies and powers that are associated with where individuals are located within these systems of inequality. It is in this context that individual acts of violence must be understood.
The circumstances of Steenkamp’s killing and Pistorius’s displays of masculinism are not inconsequential. His casting as the “blade-runner” who “defies nature” represents a normative masculinity, a kind of hyper hetero-manliness. His is a gun-toting maleness whose gender repertoire includes violent behaviour against women, threats of violence against other men, and generalised social aggression that endangers other people’s lives. These are matters of public record.
Second and third, “that the case is still sub judice and so we shouldn’t form an opinion on Pistorius’s actions” and “he might be unfairly made an example of”: As we know, courts themselves are sites where gender prejudices are very much in play. Often court proceedings that involve violence against women reinforce gender inequalities as women’s behaviours are disproportionately scrutinised. In rape cases, for example, male motivation is often pitted against “female sexual licentiousness”, which oftentimes is used to vindicate male violence. The courts hardly “make an example” of violent men, as my critic would have it. Quite the contrary: statistics show that most rapes and murders of women do not result in convictions. The five percent conviction rate in rape cases is a case in point.
Pistorius is the hero many still choose to love, possibly because he personifies a revered manhood that overcame disability, literally. It is also a masculinity that, in defending Steenkamp’s killing, claims the “male protector” role as justification for shooting through a closed door. The “stranger behind the door” is the person from whom Steenkamp was allegedly “being protected”. Pistorius’s defence of Steenkamp’s killing is based on an “intent” that relies on certain normalised assumptions about gender and race as justification for his crime. My argument seeks to delegitimise this gender and race paradigm, which has the social effect of validating violent men and their killing of women (wittingly or not).
Fourth, “we don’t really know what happened when Steenkamp was shot”: Public discourses on violence often demonstrate which bodies matter most. My critic, and many like him, are effectively trying to orientate the injustice of Steenkamp’s killing toward speculations of “what really happened” — for Oscar that is.
All too often male intentionality is invoked to justify male violence. When the narrative becomes “all about Oscar” the focus on Steenkamp gets reduced to how her actions might corroborate the “rational intent” of the “innocent until proven guilty” Pistorius.
It is our work as citizens, as distinct from courts of law, to make sense of what we know, or wish to know, of what happens in the social sphere. This necessitates that we discern the convenient from the not-so-convenient truths of the deaths we inflict on each other.
How might we be complicit in upholding a dominant truth — one that legitimises and reinforces hierarchies of gender, race and sexuality — as the primary lens through which to understand violence? Such hierarchies render some powerful and others at the receiving end of that power, and are visible in many of the hackneyed images and gestures of Valentine’s Day. These are hierarchies that, in the final instance, kill.