The Barking Spider pub outside Port Elizabeth is long, narrow and gloomy, even on a summer’s day, with only the doorway and two small barred windows yielding to the light. A shaven-headed man in T-shirt and jeans, with cigarette in one hand and helmet in the other, speaks to another in Afrikaans and then leaves. A motorcycle engine growls outside and dies away.
Pictures of racehorses adorn the cream and pink walls, a flatscreen TV plays songs by Oasis and Kylie Minogue and laminated menus offer English-style pub grub such as a full breakfast or fish and chips. The owners of this modest drinking den in a remote South African village could little have dreamed that their destiny lay here when their daughter was posing on the red carpet and pursuing a career as a model.
Her name was Reeva Steenkamp and she was killed by her boyfriend, the Paralympic athlete Oscar Pistorius, a year ago. The Valentine’s Day tragedy shocked millions who regarded Pistorius, a double amputee dubbed the Blade Runner, as a hero. He claims he mistook 29-year-old Steenkamp for an intruder when he shot four times through a locked bathroom door at his home at 3am, a defence that will be tested in court next month when he stands trial for murder.
The case made global headlines, with Pistorius and Steenkamp portrayed on front pages as a couple in the mould of David and Victoria Beckham. Yet, for her parents, Barry and June Steenkamp, life has never been glamorous. Their struggle to make ends meet offers a glimpse of a fragile white middle class that is a world away from that of models, sports stars and fast cars, and rarely features in narratives of South Africa in the outside world.
Wall of silence
There are no pictures of Reeva on display at the Barking Spider, where black-and-white photographs of horse races in 1930s South Africa, along with men’s and women’s toilets labelled "Colts" and "Fillies", speak to Barry’s career as a trainer. Likewise, there is a wall of silence from most of her family and friends as the world’s media return to their doorsteps.
"There has been constant pressure," said Reeva’s half-sister, Simone, standing behind the wood-strip bar one afternoon last week. "I’ll have my head on a block if I say anything."
She estimated that the pub could get anything from 10 to 40 customers a day. Asked whether she could confirm that the Steenkamps had bought it using money they were paid for two media interviews, Simone replied hesitantly: "It will all come out in the end. It’s all a bunch of hogwash."
Her mother, June, arrived and was more forthright: "The trial is coming up. Every single reporter has been in here. This interview is over. I would like you to leave."
Minutes later two journalists from an Afrikaans newspaper could be seen disappearing into the pub, only to re-emerge almost immediately and beat a hasty retreat.
Cash-strapped and feeling hounded by the media after Reeva’s death, the Steenkamps moved 20km out of the city to Greenbushes, a sleepy, traditional village of white smallholder farmers where black workers can be seen riding donkey-drawn carts.
The tightly knit community has welcomed the Steenkamps. A 65-year-old businessperson, who did not wish to be named, said: "We are really putting our arms around them in this area. Barry and June are begging for privacy. They are going through a difficult time and their wounds must heal. I think in a year’s time they’ll be new people. Once the court case is over, they can start relaxing."
A local man has given Barry a piece of land and built stables so he can go back to training horses, and June has thrown herself into the pub and "got compliments since day one" on the quality of its food. The businessman added: "My son has been doing a lot of work there on electric fences and stuff. One day she came to me and said, ‘he’s an angel sent from heaven’."
Greenbushes is ideal for the Steenkamps to find peace, the friend said. "It’s wonderful to stay here. It’s my little paradise. I think there’s no other place in South Africa with the crime rate we have got: it’s almost nothing. But it would be wonderful to bring the death penalty back. The jails in this country are like hotels. They live like kings."
There could hardly be a sharper contrast with Reeva’s career in Johannesburg, where she advertised soft drinks and cars, secured a place on a reality TV show and dated international sportsmen, including Pistorius.
Media inquiries are now directed to a leading criminal lawyer, Dup de Bruyn, who has agreed to represent the Steenkamps pro bono. "They needed me," he said. "They were really hounded and needed a buffer. They’re very traumatised and, with all these days coming up, everybody’s beginning to phone and we’re trying to protect them. There are more requests than I can handle."
De Bruyn said he was negotiating with Pistorius’s team over settling a civil suit out of court. But one thing that remains uncertain is whether the Steenkamps will leave their remote village pub and head for Pretoria to attend South Africa’s trial of the century, starting on March 3. "We haven’t made a final decision," De Bruyn said. – © Guardian News & Media 2014