‘ Reeva was unlucky – sooner or later Oscar Pistorius would have killed someone’
They waited 20monthsfor justice. Last month, Oscar Pistorius was sentenced to five years in prison for killing their daughter, Reeva. In an exclusive interview, June and Barry Steenkamp tell Jerome Starkey about how they’ve coped – and why they fear theymay never know what really happened
This is the first time I have seen June Steenkamp smile. She is sitting at the far side of a long wooden table overlooking a swimming pool in the shady courtyard of a guest house that has become her second home in Pretoria, South Africa.
The avenues outside are flush with bluish-purple jacaranda blossoms. Pupils from Pretoria Boys High School, which is just across the road, are trickling through the gates in their old-fashioned uniforms: shortsleeved khaki shirts with a school tie, and khaki shorts and matching socks pulled up to their knees.
It was as a pupil there that her daughter’s killer, Oscar Pistorius, first discovered he could run.
June Steenkamp has stayed in this small, discreet guest house many times since March, when the South African Paralympian went on trial for murder. It was here that she’d wake up at dawn every morning during the trial and steel herself to face the world’s media – and the double amputee, known as the Blade Runner, accused of shooting dead her daughter, Reeva, a model, in the early hours of Valentine’s Day last year.
For much of the past seven months I have sat one row behind June and the entourage of relatives, friends and women’s league supporters, in the North Gauteng High Court, as we heard, in unsparing detail, how four hollow-tipped bullets tore into Reeva’s body and “blew the brains out of her skull”. The courtroom gasped
as one when pictures of Reeva’s bloodied head flashed up on screens. We watched Pistorius sob and vomit. Yet we were spared the burden of being the victim’s mother.
Five hundred and seventy four days after that night, and following a trial that lasted six months, Pistorius was acquitted of premeditated murder but convicted on the lesser charge of culpable homicide, the South African term for manslaughter.
In a tense courtroom, Judge Thokozile Masipa ruled the State had failed to prove Pistorius knew it was Reeva when he opened fire through the locked toilet door of his apartment in an exclusive gated community in Pretoria. Throughout the trial, he said he mistook his girlfriend of three months for an intruder.
“He said pulling the trigger was ‘an accident’. What? Four times an accident?” June rails in her book, Reeva: a Mother’s Story. “He said Reeva did not scream, but she would definitely have screamed. I know my daughter and she was very vocal.”
In court, June’s lips were always pursed. Her eyes gazed inscrutably at whoever addressed the judge. Sometimes it seemed as if she had been sedated, but she tells me now she only took tranquillisers to help her through the funeral, which she can barely remember.
“The press referred to me as Stoneface,” she says. “But a lot of people said they admired my composure.” When the pictorial evidence was too graphic to bear, the State’s lawyers would throw her a glance to warn her to look away or take off her glasses. Just once, she didn’t turn in time and saw a picture of Pistorius, topless, standing on his prosthetic legs, drenched in Reeva’s blood.
When we meet, all she says by way of greeting was “Hi”, but her eyes light up and her lips part into a smile. She’s just being polite, but it casts away the death mask she has donned in public. Suddenly, after all these months, she seems more human – and her grief more real. “I think I have a way of coping and keeping things in; that’s the only way I have survived this,” she explains. “But I think once all this is over it’s going to... It’s all going to come rushing back and things are going to be even harder.” She lets out a sigh as her voice trails off and she contemplates the future.
“You can laugh about some things,” the 68-year-old says. “It’s not like you are miserable all the time. It’s just this wrenching pain that you get in your heart.” She pauses. “And your soul. That’s what it is.”
At times her pain was so intense, she thought she might be going insane. “This is going to sit with us for the rest of our life. It’s never going to be right. Because she’s not with us. It’s always there. The minute your eyes open in the morning, or if you wake up in the middle of the night, there it is.” She often wakes at around 3am, the time when Reeva died.
June moved from Blackburn, in England’s Lancashire county, to Cape Town, aged 19, and has never been back. It was in Cape Town where she met her second husband, Barry, Reeva’s father.
Today, Barry is sitting at the table, leaning on his forearms as he did in court. With a bushy white beard and a publican’s gut (they run a “working-class” restaurant in Port Elizabeth called the Barking Spider), he looks like Father Christmas. He heaves himself round to greet me. This retired racehorse trainer, 71, has suffered two strokes since his daughter died and he was only well enough to attend the trial in time for the closing arguments in August, six months after it first started.
“As soon as he gets cross or upset about anything, he has to put these tablets under his tongue so he won’t have a heart attack,” June explains to me, as if he isn’t here. The first day he attended court he took three, she says.
They lived apart for 14 years, but never divorced and moved back in together in 2008, after burglars broke into June’s home on a night when Reeva had been visiting from Johannesburg. Reeva said it wasn’t safe and forced her parents back together. Fragile marriages might have cracked under the trauma
they’ve endured, but she says they have grown closer. “We are happy. We are very close,” his wife says.
Both have children from their previous marriages who live in England. Reeva, their only child together, was born 18 years after June’s first daughter, Simone. Barry has a son, Adam. Reeva was “unexpected”, June admits. “I think she was a gift from God.”
They have a recurring image of Reeva, who was 29 when she died. It is the thought of her terrified and alone in the small toilet cubicle, pleading for her life or screaming in agony once she had been shot. June: “Both of us are haunted by the same nightmare. The vision of Reeva suffering this terrible trauma. Her terror and helplessness. Her yells for help piercing the silent night air.”
Her husband imagines her begging for her life. “He agonises over what was going through her mind: ‘Where is anyone? Who is going to save me?’”
There are two lawyers also sitting at the table, with their laptops out: Dup de Bruyn and Tania Koen, who have acted as spokesmen since these grieving parents were thrust into the spotlight. In the last days of the sentencing, the Steenkamps were again in the headlines. Gerrie Nel, the prosecutor known as “Pit Bull”, revealed Pistorius had paid the Steenkamps 6,000 rand a month (about Dh2,000) since March 2013. He also offered Reeva’s parents a one-off payment of 375,000 rand from the sale of his car, which Nel denounced as “blood money”.
De Bruyn says the Steenkamps rejected the second offer and plan to repay the monthly stipends, because “their circumstances had changed”.
June admits in her book they “always had money worries and that was stressful and draining”. At the point when Reeva was murdered they were penniless.
Throughout Reeva’s childhood, when Barry ran a livery stable, the family was poor. “As long as I can remember, they really battled,” Reeva’s cousin Kim Martin told the sentencing hearing. “People tend not to pay you, and Barry would never the night before she died, Reeva told her mother she had sent them money to pay for satellite television, because she wanted them to see her in a reality TV show, Tropika Island of
which was just about to air.
Eighteen months on the Steenkamps are no longer poor. “I have done some deals,” says De Bruyn, in a thinly veiled reference to the book and the lucrative television interviews he’s arranged on their behalf. “Every time they have an interview they must go and live through the trauma of what they have experienced, and they suffer,” says the lawyer. “And they need the money, so what is wrong in asking for something for that suffering?”
Are they exploiting Reeva’s death? “I think she would have wanted us to have some money,” her mother says. “Imagine going through this trauma, suffering, pain and having no money. Sometimes not even for food or anything. Struggling.”
The monthly stipends from Pistorius were supposed to be offset against any civil claim for compensation the Steenkamps might choose to make, but the court was told the couple have no plans to sue. Reeva’s mother suggests that’s because they don’t need to any more.
“Well, how long do you think we’re going to live?” she asks. “I’m 68 and Barry’s 71. How long do we have? Without money, how would we have done that? How would we have survived?” The money they’ve made is theirs, but they hope to start
‘We are both haunted by the same nightmare… of Reeva’s yells for help piercing the night air’
turn a horse away.” They had moved from Cape Town to the Eastern Cape where Barry was bankrupted and forced to close his stables. After the funeral, when it was revealed in the press that the couple were broke, their landlady served them with two months’ notice for fear that her rent would not be paid.
Reeva was their pension. “She used to say that she was working to look after us in our old age,” recalls her mother. In their last conversation,
fundraising for the Reeva Steenkamp Foundation. They hope to run two women’s shelters, in Port Elizabeth and Cape Town. In South Africa a woman is killed by a partner every six hours. “There are very poor areas and they have got very little help for anything in that direction,” she says.
At times the memoir reads like a scrapbook of doting memories. It draws on letters, school reports and keepsakes. Sometimes it’s Reeva’s CV. But in some way it is an attempt to redress the balance. Not only did they lose their daughter in a horrific, violent way, they had to watch her reduced to “Oscar Pistorius’s girlfriend” in the deluge of coverage that followed. During the trial, her mother notes how Reeva was referred to as “the deceased” in the sterile language of the court.
“Reeva has become sort of invisible,” she says. “She’s a person. She’s somebody who’s loved and somebody who’s going to be missed for ever and ever.”
Yet what June hid in court, behind her stoic mask, she reveals in print with abundant frankness. In her view, Pistorius is “arrogant”, “moody”, “volatile” and “combustible”. He is “gun-toting”, “trigger-happy”, “possessive”, “vague”, “evasive” and “shifty”. She does not believe his story. “It was Reeva’s bad luck that she met him, because sooner or later he would have killed someone. I do believe that.”
Judge Masipa, a former crime reporter who became the second black woman appointed to the High Court in South Africa, said Pistorius had been a “poor witness”. But she concluded that he gave a version that “could reasonably, possibly be true ... In criminal law that is all that is required for an acquittal,” as she acquitted him of the murder charge with its mandatory life sentence.
“I wasn’t happy with it at all,” June says. Her voice seems more measured than her words deserve. “I don’t think that was justice for Reeva at all.”
According to the athlete’s version of events, he was in love with Reeva. On the night she died, she came to his house in Pretoria’s exclusive Silver Woods estate and cooked him a meal of chicken and vegetables before they went upstairs. She did some yoga on the bedroom floor, while he lay on the bed browsing the internet and making phone calls. They fell asleep together sometime after 10pm.
It was a hot summer evening and the balcony doors were open, where two fans blew air across the bed. Oscar said he woke around 3am and Reeva asked him, “Can’t you sleep, my baba [baby]?”
He went to the balcony, on his stumps, to move the fans and close the doors, then went towards a chest of drawers to obscure a light glowing on his hi-fi, which he told the court had been disturbing him, but before he could drape her jeans across the the bathroom window was open. The toilet door was shut. Then he heard a noise, coming from the toilet cubicle, which he believed was the intruder coming out to attack him. He fired four shots “without thinking”.
The screams the neighbours heard were his, his lawyers said, once he realised his mistake. The other “gunshots,” which came later, were the sounds of a cricket bat as he battered down the door to try to save Reeva’s life.
Reeva’s parents are unconvinced. “He’s the only one who knows the truth,” June says.
In the three months that they knew each other, Reeva and Pistorius had become South Africa’s red-carpet couple. She had broken up with long-term boyfriend-Warren Lahoud, the man her parents thought she’d marry, a few months earlier. There was a short-lived dalliance with Francois Hougaard, a professional rugby player. When she appeared at the South African Sports Awards on Pistorius’s arm in November 2012, her friends feared she had become a “trophy girlfriend”.
The athlete told his trial that she struggled with the press scrutiny that came with the relationship. June scoffs that this is “rubbish”. On the contrary, Reeva enjoyed the attention, and perhaps it clouded her judgement. “Howmuch of an unattractive attitude did she dismiss because he was a golden boy,” June wonders in her book. “Howmuch was she flattered to have won his heart?”
Pistorius told the court they were planning a life together, but June thinks Reeva had “nagging doubts about their compatibility”.
Pathologist Prof Gert Saayman, who carried out Reeva’s autopsy said food in her stomach suggested she had eaten around 1am, when Pistorius said they were both asleep.
‘It was Reeva’s bad luck that shemet him, because sooner or later he would have killed someone’
light he heard the sound of a window sliding open in the bathroom.
“That’s the moment that everything changed,” he said.
Afraid it was an intruder who had climbed a ladder to break in and harm them, he scrambled back to his side of the bed, grabbed his Taurus 9mm pistol and hobbled to the bathroom, screaming at the intruder, “Get the [expletive] out ofmy house!” He saw
Her mother is also troubled by the photographs that showed Reeva’s jeans strewn across the bedroom floor, as Reeva was a “neat freak”.
In the book, Reeva’s mother dissects every text, every tweet, every email, for hidden meaning in the brief relationship. She concludes that it was volatile, unpredictable. Barry recalls that when the police read out messages from WhatsApp messaging service, it was as though their daughter was “talking in court”. Reeva said Pistorius scared her, and that he picked on her “incessantly”. In her parents’ version of events, their daughter was gradually being ground down by Pistorius’s demands.
Reeva, her parents say, was unhappy when she arrived at Oscar’s house. CCTV footage, according to her mother, shows her looking miserable as she approaches the compound. Something was brewing. By 1am, when Reeva was said to have eaten, the couple were fighting, which is backed up by a neighbour who heard two people arguing from 1.56am. “There is no doubt in our minds that something went horribly wrong, something upset her so terribly that she hid behind a locked door with two mobile phones,” June writes.
Reeva was shot wearing a sleeveless black top and grey tracksuit seems strangely calm. Judge Masipa made the right decision based on the evidence before the court, June says. It’s just there was something missing.
She sympathises with the athlete’s family. Pistorius’s mother died when he was 15, but his siblings, Aimee and Carl, his uncle, Arnold, and aunt, Lois, were in court almost every day. His estranged father, Henke, also came towards the end.
“They did nothing wrong,” she says. “They are suffering like we are suffering. Except that he’s still breathing. That’s the only difference.”
Aimee passed her a note during the second week of the trial. “She wanted to know if we needed anything and she included her phone number.” She says it was sweet, “but it would not have been proper to accept their family’s show of concern”.
Some legal experts have suggested the State could appeal, claiming that Judge Masipa made an error in the law by not convicting him dolus eventualis – indirect intent – a type of murder used when a person realises there is a possibility that their actions might kill someone, but carries on regardless. “That would entail another five years of court,” June says. But the couple just wants it all to be over and done with.
In the lead-up to Pistorius’s sentencing, Reeva’s cousin Kim Martin said their family had been ruined and urged the judge to jail Pistorius. In the event, he was given five years in prison and an additional three years’ suspended sentence for a firearms offence, a sentence June
‘Her bag was packed. There’s no doubt in our minds that Reeva had decided to leave Oscar’
shorts, “clothes for a summer’s day, not her night clothes”. She was facing the door when the first bullet struck her hip, “probably pleading”.
“Either of them could have received a Valentine’s Day message from another admirer that might have sparked a row,” June speculates. “Her clothes were packed. There is no doubt in our minds: she had decided to leave Oscar that night.”
Michelle Burger, a university lecturer who said she heard bloodcurdling screams the night Reeva died, said there was a pause between the first shot and the final three. “I think he may have shot once and then he shot her again,” June writes. She says she sat through the trial because she wanted justice and she wanted the truth. Both, she feels, have been denied. Yet she believes was “right”. She insists the family isn’t “seeking anything” but agrees on the importance of sending a message to society that what Pistorius did is “not OK”. “We wouldn’t want him to suffer,” she says, because that would be inhuman. “Even though he has done something terrible.”
Both of them have found a way to forgive. It’s what Reeva would have wanted. “Reeva, I think, she would have forgiven him, too,” Barry says.
In fact, they want to meet Pistorius. They never met when their daughter was going out with him. Steenkamp says it would be a way of “claiming back” their daughter. “I am not entirely sure what I am going to say. I know how I feel, but it’s in my head and it must stay there until that time that we meet,” she says. Her husband wants an apology. He wasn’t in court the day Pistorius turned to Reeva’s mother and promised her that her daughter “felt loved” when she went to bed that night.
“I would like him,” Barry says, “to really, truthfully say, although he said it in court, ‘I’m sorry’. I would like him just to say it to our faces. You know, to be genuine with us and sit down and say how sorry he is for everything. And also the grief that he has caused everybody.”
Do they think he would tell them the truth? “No,” says June in a whisper. “Very improbable.”
Reeva’s death was “a double tragedy”, June writes. Two gifted young lives were shattered. Two days after Reeva died, the reality TV show in which she starred was broadcast with the Steenkamps’ blessing. “A lot of people didn’t understand that,” she says. “Because, how many women can watch, when they know their daughter’s dead? I wanted to see her laughing and alive. I didn’t miss one of those episodes.”
As for Pistorius, “He’s lost a lot,” she says. According to his lawyers, the Paralympian is penniless. “He lost all his sponsors. He lost all his money. He hasn’t even money to pay for legal expenses,” defence lawyer Barry Roux said at the sentencing. He is suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder and his reputation is in tatters.
“But Reeva’s lost the possibility of having a grandchild for us,” her mother says. She isn’t smiling now. “Having a baby, getting married. And, of course, her career was going so well. She was just about to take off. Now, she’s not even here breathing, you know. That’s the thing.”
June was upset that her daughter was reduced to just ‘Oscar Pistorius’s girlfriend’ during the trial
The couple say they have found a way to forgive, as that’s what Reeva would have wanted
June says she remembers very little of Reeva’s funeral
Although he did so in court, Reeva’s parents want Oscar to apologise in person
Despite once having had a successful career, the athlete is now penniless
Barry and June didn’t meet Oscar when he was dating Reeva, but would like to now
Barry suffered two strokes after his daughter’s death and was only able to attend court for the final arguments
Oscar’s reputation and finances are in ruins following the trial, but at least he’s alive, June points out
The pair quickly became a ‘red carpet couple’, with friends worried Reeva was becoming a trophy wife