Because Reeva Gets to Be a Person

Since the brutal murder of Anene Booysen, another woman has become famous by her first name alone: Reeva. As the narrative of the events of Valentine’s Day shifts from one focusing on fears of violent crime to domestic violence, it is becoming clear that nobody in South Africa – no matter how rich, or famous, or beautiful – is immune from the gender-based violence that has become endemic.

I am not in the target market for the Tropika Island of Treasure, the reality show in which one of the celebrity guests is Reeva Steenkamp. Though I have an inexplicable weakness for pineapple flavoured dairy fruit juice blend, I am not one of the people who will have fitted into the marketing brief, which probably read along the lines of “LSM 5-7, ages 16-24, urban”. I have a hunch, though, that many others not in Tropika’s core target market also watched the show last night, because it has now taken on a surreal significance unthinkable before the terrible events of Valentine’s Day.

Should they have broadcast the show as scheduled? Reeva has not even been buried yet and her killer, Oscar Pistorius, has not yet entered a plea. In that sense, a vapid reality show filled with crashingly unsubtle product placement – Reeva posing on a beach, like the other female contestants, with a Tropika bottle propped awkwardly against her thigh – is a rather lurid obituary to a woman now famous around the world. Though the producers have said that broadcasting the show as planned is a fitting tribute to Reeva, I am sure that other more pragmatic considerations are in play: the money paid by the sponsor, the huge national (and global) interest.

You could argue, quite justifiably, that broadcasting the show is tasteless and cynical. The tribute that appeared in Real Goboza, the celebrity gossip show that immediately preceded it on Saturday evening, was rather glib and perfunctory under the circumstances. I expected more, and the fact that Phat Joe, the presenter, introduced the new show by saying, “If nothing else, watch it for the bodies” made it all even more clangingly awful. Presumably his segment was recorded before all of this happened, but his words could not have been more unfortunate.

But, all things considered, I am glad that they chose to broadcast it. Here’s why.

This case is as much about fame as it is about anything else. And in the fame stakes, Oscar Pistorius is at a huge advantage. That this story is as big as it is from Sky News to the New York Times is testament to Oscar’s celebrity status and his singular power as a symbol of the greatness of the human spirit. He’s a figure streaking down a track on his distinctive blades, a face gazing from a billboard, the subject of countless TV interviews and profiles. It’s worth remembering that Oscar has a spin doctor, a former editor of The Sun known as the “human sponge”, and a team of hot-shot lawyers. Reeva has her family and friends.

This will be Oscar’s story no matter what, because of its sheer scale. Already it threatens to become that of the ultimate failed hero. In its dizzying rollercoaster dive from the heights of Olympic glory to the horror of a brutal crime, Oscar’s tale dwarfs even Tiger and Lance. It will be told years from now, the narrative of a star that burned too bright and burned out like a meteor in a Russian sky, brought down to earth by whatever is revealed during the course of the trial. Everything else will be lost in the glare of this spectacular self-immolation.

That’s why it’s so important that we see Reeva. Why it’s so important that she’s not just a victim in a bikini, but a laughing, breathing, talking human being. Someone we like. Someone we can relate to. Someone who talks to us, even if it’s through a TV screen and it’s from a past where the possibility of being shot by your celebrity boyfriend was blissfully unthinkable.

Nobody could see that clip from the show, the one where she says goodbye to her fellow contestants, and feel indifferent. So ironically, a TV show devoted above all to persuading South African teenagers to drink a dairy fruit juice blend available from the tuckshop down the road has turned Reeva from a victim photo into a real person. And that is a good thing.

“I think the way that you go out, not just your journey in life, but the way that you go out and the way you make your exit is so important,” Reeva Steenkamp, speaking about being voted off the show.

– Sarah Britten, 17 February 2013