The Barking Spider pub 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 next week. 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.
There are no pictures of Reeva on display at the Barking Spider, where black and white photos 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’s been constant pressure,” said Reeva’s half-sister Simone, standing behind the wood-strip bar one afternoon this 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 if 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.
While many in the community are sympathetic to the Steenkamps, the letters page of the Herald, the local paper in Port Elizabeth and one of the oldest in South Africa, has revealed dissenting voices.
The paper’s editor, Heather Robertson, said: “I think the Steenkamps are beginning to be seen as money grabbers living off their daughter’s tragedy”
Port Elizabeth, in Eastern Cape province, was founded by British settlers nearly two centuries ago and a statue of Queen Victoria stands near the Herald’s office. Car manufacturers such as Ford, General Motors and Volkswagen have plants here. “This is a blue-collar town, a motoring town,” Robertson said. “This is the Detroit of South Africa, and Detroit is dead. These aren’t flashy people or your wealthy white middle class in Cape Town.”
Cash-strapped and feeling hounded by the media after Reeva’s death, the Steenkamps moved 12 miles out of town to Greenbushes, a sleepy, traditional village of white smallholder farmers where black workers can be seen riding donkey-drawn carts. It is evocative of another age. “Greenbushes is away from the South African story,” Robertson observed.
The tightly knit community has welcomed the Steenkamps. A 65-year-old businessman, 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, while 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’ve 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 the humming commercial capital, Johannesburg, where she advertised soft drinks and cars, secured a place on a reality TV show and dated international sportsmen including Pistorius. Yet friends and admirers say she never forgot her roots.
Hagen Engler, a journalist and author who has written of Port Elizabeth’s “prosaic, windblown glumness”, knew her there and in Johannesburg, where as editor of the South African edition of FHM magazine he put her on the front cover. “Reeva was incredibly down-to-earth,” he said. “She was like one of the guys. I remember doing this photo shoot when she had to eat a hamburger and she got tomato ketchup all down her arm and she had a good laugh about it.”
As a teenage brunette, Reeva took part in, but didn’t win, several talent contests run by the Herald and its sister papers, as well as the Miss Port Elizabeth pageant. Barbara Robertson, a journalist who helped organise the contests, said: “Port Elizabeth girls are very natural and unsophisticated and unspoiled by the ways of the world. Reeva was unpretentious and grew up with very down-to-earth values.”
She moved to Johannesburg, dyed her hair blonde and posed for FHM, said Robertson, but she remained true to herself. “The front pages made out she was this brazen blonde with boobs hanging out. She was more than a model. She was Reeva. She had studied law at university. I don’t think she was seeking bright lights and fame and fortune. She was spreading her wings. If she got noticed, what’s wrong with that? It doesn’t make her a celeb-seducer.”
Now Robertson is braced for another onslaught of interview requests before the first anniversary of the fatal shooting. “I was hounded by media from all over the world last year. I did pull down the shutters because this is a small town and we look after our own. Port Elizabeth protected them; nobody tells anyone who they are or where to find them.”
Media inquiries are directed to a leading criminal lawyer Dup de Bruyn who has agreed to represent the Steenkamps pro bono. “They needed me,” he explained. “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 the capital, Pretoria, to attend South Africa’s trial of the century, starting on 3 March. “We haven’t made a final decision,” De Bruyn said.