Pretoria - What we saw of Reeva Steenkamp on Tropika Island of Treasure was a production, a made-for-TV version of reality. Steenkamp the model was photoshopped, with careful make-up and her best side forward. But the WhatsApp messages read out on Monday in the Oscar Pistorius murder trial told of a vulnerable woman reaching out to the man she loved with her words.
“I’m scared of you sometimes, of how you snap at me and react to me,” she wrote. “We are living in a double standard relationship… I was not flirting with anyone today, I feel sick that you suggested that. You made a scene and made us leave early. You disappointed me. I wanted you to be proud of me.
“I’m trying my best to make you happy.” And ultimately: “I’m the girl who loves you.”
Pistorius is yet to actually speak in court. What he did or didn’t do. How he screamed, where he stood, is he lying?
Monday was the first day of trial where the focus shifted to Steenkamp. But what do these messages say about their relationship and what she was feeling? Do they point to domestic abuse or just the normal ups and downs that new couples face?
Gillian Eagle, a professor of psychology at Wits University, said the messages suggested both an openness and a worrying pattern of anxiety.
“She did seem to feel that there was some space in the relationship to communicate those things, she wasn’t so afraid of him that she felt she couldn’t get him to see her perspective or understand how she was feeling,” Eagle said.
“At the same time, there does appear to be some sort of pattern of anxiety at his overreacting to some of her behaviour. There were ways in which he perceived situations which she didn’t feel were fully justified.
“It isn’t easy to draw a line and mark out where normal fighting ends and where something more sinister begins. I imagine the prosecution are going to use it (the messages) to point to a history of conflict within their relationship, but to say whether this is excessive would be difficult,” Eagle said.
Jeanette Sera, a social worker at People Opposing Women Abuse, said some of what had been raised in the messages mirrored a potentially abusive relationship. She said abuse centred around controlling the other partner. “When they (men) have low self-esteem, they want to control someone to make themselves feel better,” said Sera. This could extend to even the most unexpected facets of life, including who you befriend and what clothes you wear.
In her messages, Steenkamp had brought up Pistorius’s criticism of her accent and voice, and his anger at her speaking to certain men at parties.
“When it starts, they think it’s nice because this person gives me a lot of attention... but when the relationship progresses, they realise this is difficult. You feel like you are in prison,” added Sera.
Lisa Vetten, research associate at the Wits Institute for Social and Economic Research, said that in light of Steenkamp’s own tweets and actions ahead of her death, it was likely she would have wanted her case to be seen in the broader context of domestic violence. She said despite being “one of the most significant social problems that controls us”, it was given little attention.
Vetten said unfortunately Steenkamp’s case was unlikely to be helpful to the fight against domestic violence as long as the focus stayed on her alone.
“When the trial is over it will all be forgotten,” she said, “It is not going to change future murders.”