Steenkamp's killing came the day before she planned to wear black in a "Black Friday" protest against the country's excruciatingly high number of rapes, spurred by the particularly brutal gang-rape and mutilation of a 17-year-old that made front-page news in February. The girl managed to identify an ex-boyfriend among her attackers before she died.
As the world marks International Women's Day, South Africans are locked in public soul-searching over the high level of murders and rapes perpetrated against women.
In the past month, among other cases in South Africa: a court charged a man accused of chopping up and beheading his wife with a machete; police arrested a 29-year-old accused of raping a 2-year-old toddler fighting for her life in the hospital; and police are investigating the rape of a 100-year-old great-great grandmother. Police still are hunting for two of 15 men accused of gang raping a 23-year-old woman. Her ordeal lasted hours.
Newspaper editorials and talk radio shows are examining traditional chauvinistic attitudes, gun control laws and weaknesses in the police and court systems that allow many perpetrators to walk free—thus discouraging women from reporting. This week police disclosed that they do not have enough rape kits, needed to collect evidence.
"Of all the matrics (high school graduates) in your class, one third have been raped!" says a public education announcement on Talk Radio 702, referring to statistics that estimate more than 30 percent of girls have been raped by the time they are 18.
It seems there are few places for South African girls to be safe: Many are raped in their homes by a relative or family friend; many are raped at school, often by teachers; only a quarter are raped by someone they do not know.
In South Africa, statistics say someone gets raped every four minutes. Only 66,196 incidents were reported to police last year and their investigations led to only 4,500 convictions.
"If data for all violent assaults, rapes and other sexual assaults against women are taken into account, then approximately 200,000 adult women are reported as being attacked in South Africa every year," Lerato Moloi of the South African Institute for Race Relations said. The real figure is considerably higher, she said, since most cases never are reported.
The rate of murders of women in South Africa is equally troubling.
A woman is killed by an intimate partner every eight hours in South Africa, a probable underestimate because no perpetrator is identified in 20 percent of killings, according to a study published in August and co-authored by Professor Rachel Jewkes of the South African Medical Research Council. That is double the rate of such murders in the United States, according to the report. The study was based on a sample of deceased females aged 14 years and older at national mortuaries, since police statistics do not separate the killings of women by partners from those by strangers.
It found that although the murders of females has gone down between 1999 and 2009, as have all homicides, the percentage killed by intimate partners has increased—from 50 percent to 57 percent. Half the women were killed by partners they were living with, 30 percent by men they were dating and 18 percent by their husbands.
The study also found rape was suspected in more than one in four of the killings. "The proportion of women killed by non-intimate partners where there was a rape has significantly increased, but those figures are hidden" in police statistics, explained Jewkes, who has been researching gender violence in South Africa for 20 years.
The study compared statistics from a similar project in 1999 to find evidence of progress in reducing such killings: "Our assumption would be if our gender-based activities were having an impact we would see a decline but there wasn't, in fact gender-based non-intimate and intimate murders have increased, though overall homicide is decreasing."
Something "is going terribly wrong," Jewkes said.
A major obstacle is the number of men who are rapists. Thirty-seven percent of men in a survey in Gauteng Province admitted they had raped a woman, according to a survey that Jewkes did with other academics. Gauteng is the smallest but most populated province of South Africa.
Jewkes said it can be difficult to work with men, knowing that one in three is, statistically, a rapist.
"This must be a huge obstacle to getting anything done from police to make arrests to decisions in the court room by magistrates and so forth," she said.
At least half a dozen police officers have been arrested for alleged rape since November, including one accused of raping a 14-year-old boy and an officer accused of raping a woman who came to the police station to report domestic violence. In the month of February, two police officers were arrested for alleged rape; one officer was sentenced to 15 years' imprisonment for shooting and killing his girlfriend and another officer was arrested in the shooting death of a woman he was involved with. Two police officers are on trial for shooting and wounding their wives. The February figures come from the Independent Police Investigative Directorate, which investigates crimes committed by officers.
The public discussions come as the wife of a multimillionaire Cabinet minister is suing him for divorce alleging domestic abuse.
Opposition politician Lindiwe Mazibuko has described "a silent war against the children and women of this country ... We live in a deeply patriarchal and injured society where the rights of women are not respected."
President Jacob Zuma, who was acquitted on charges of raping the daughter of a family friend in 2005, this month launched a national "Stop Rape" campaign "to rid our country of this scourge, to cure our nation of this sickness."
South Africa has strong laws protecting women and children, but they are not being acted on.
Some of the few victims who report domestic violence receive inadequate support from officials, according to an Inter-Ministerial Committee on Violence against Women and Children. "There is evidence that victims reported cases of domestic violence to police or social workers, but their pleas for help fell on deaf ears or (they) were told to resolve the matter with their partners," said its recent report.
The committee was set up in May last year and reviewed research on the subject in February "with the view to develop new strategies." At the same time it noted "a need to move from policy to action."