June Steenkamp was born in Blackburn, England, and moved to South Africa in 1965. In 2013, Steenkamp’s daughter, Reeva Steenkamp, was shot and killed by Paralympian Oscar Pistorius, who had been dating Reeva for several months. Pistorius was later convicted of Reeva’s murder. In 2015, Steenkamp established the Reeva Rebecca Steenkamp Foundation to educate and empower women and children against violence and abuse.
June Steenkamp was interviewed about her life, career and hope for the future for 200 WOMEN, a book and exhibition project founded on the principle of gender equality comprising original interviews and accompanying photographic portraits. This landmark project is the realisation of an epic global journey to find two hundred women with diverse backgrounds, and to ask them what really matters to them.
Q. What really matters to you?
What matters to me is other women; I want to save women from losing their daughters, and I want to save women from losing their lives.
I moved to South Africa from England with my first husband and our daughter, Simone. The marriage ended in divorce and I was left on my own in a strange country. Learning how to stand on my own two feet was incredibly hard; I had to work three jobs to support Simone, and I grew up a lot over that period. Then I met Barry in 1981, and, ten days later, we were married. We never expected to have children together, but then I became pregnant with Reeva and we were overjoyed.
Reeva was such an exceptional, loving person: she gave so much love to Barry and me, and we gave it back. We adored her. Before she went to university, she broke her back in two places. It was incredibly traumatic for all of us and the doctors weren’t sure whether she would walk again. But she did. She went to university wearing a special casing for her back – she looked like she was heading for space – but she never missed a day’s lectures, and she finished her law degree with thirteen distinctions. She was clever, beautiful and caring.
When Anene Booysen was gang raped, disembowelled and murdered in 2013 – at just seventeen – Reeva called me and said, ‘Mummy, I have to do something about this.’ She started her work against the abuse of women and, less than two weeks later, she herself was murdered; the day she died she was supposed to talk to schoolgirls in Johannesburg about violence against women.
Reeva was the most wonderful person in our lives, and suddenly she was gone. It was unbearable. Whatever she was going through in her relationship she hid from me – I believe that’s because she didn’t want me to worry. Living with the horrendous way she died is difficult. We had protected her all along, then suddenly this thing happened and there was nothing we could do. Barry and I wake up every night at the time she died, and I think that’s because we feel we should have protected her. You believe it one minute, then the next it hasn’t happened – it’s how you shield yourself but, eventually, you have to accept it.
After it happened, I missed Reeva so much and my grief became destructive, but, during the trial, I went into another space in my head. I felt very vulnerable in that courtroom, but, after everything that had happened, it was crucial that I had my dignity – it was a way of protecting myself. I wanted to be strong, but the things I had to listen to were terrible and it was very hard for me. God gave me the strength to get through it, though, and eventually, I freed myself from the anger and the destruction inside me, and I forgave; you have to forgive – it’s what God expects – but that doesn’t mean Reeva’s murderer mustn’t pay for what he did.
Somehow, I came to the realisation that, instead of sitting at home crying and crying, I needed to get myself together and try to help other women affected by violence. That’s how the foundation was born; it’s named after Reeva, in her memory, to continue her legacy and the work she started. We want to raise awareness of physical abuse towards women, provide resources to victims of abuse and educate women on their self-worth. We are focussed on education; we speak to girls so that they are equipped with the tools they need to develop an intolerance towards men treating them in certain ways. We also want to educate men – while they are still boys – to respect the women in their lives. We want to get ahead of this violence and try to do something to prevent it even occurring. Men must be taught to respect their mothers, their sisters, their girlfriends and their wives. Right now, we are focussing on trying to get attorneys and advocates to volunteer their time to support women who might not have access to legal support. And every year we nominate a Reeva Girl – a woman who is pursuing a legal degree with an emphasis on family law – and we pay for her studies, to empower her to help victims of physical violence.
The foundation gives me a reason to go on, a reason to live and to move forward; helping other people is what my life is about now – this has helped me a lot. But violence against women is not an easy thing to stop, and it’s escalating every day – the examples are endless, and sometimes it feels like there is so little justice for these women. Nonetheless, I hope we can change the world; until I take my last breath, my life is going to be about trying to save other women from losing their daughters; it’s going to be about trying to help others so that they don’t have to go through what I went through and what Reeva went through.
Q. What brings you happiness?
I find happiness and peace in my work and with my animals. Barry was a racehorse trainer and I’ve had horses all my life, though I don’t ride anymore – I’m seventy now, so if I did, my legs might fall off!
Q. What do you regard as the lowest depth of misery?
The state of the world as it is now – there is so much cruelty, abuse and murder. If we all loved one another and gave love to each other, the world would be a better place, but, right now, it’s not happening – I look around and I see tragedy. It’s hard and relentless.
Q. What would you change if you could?
I want everybody to give their love to each other, in the same way that they love themselves – we can’t go forward without doing that.
Q. Which single word do you most identify with?
Death. I’m trying to help extinguish the death of young women at the hands of their partners. That’s why I’ve chosen that word – because death has made me who I am today.