What our fascination with Siam Lee reveals about us
The disappearance and murder of Siam Lee, a self-proclaimed 'snot-nosed psychedelic elf spending time in human form', captured the attention of tens of thousands of South Africans. Jeff Wicks delves into the obsession.
Durban escort Siam Lee loved Canadian spoken word poet Rupi Kaur, was a gender activist and worshipped the human body in all shapes and forms.
That’s according to the highlight reel she consciously shared of herself on her curated Instagram account.
But, having not met her, I’m uncertain of what she would have made of images of herself appearing on a bumper sticker – the ultimate symbol of white liberalism –- being doled out at the Durban Magistrate’s Court on Friday.
It illustrates poignantly that her death has become a cause and the mounting crescendo of outcry that dominated Facebook threads, precious minutes of radio time and centimetres of newsprint has exposed contentious social issues linked to white identity.Looking at pictures of her, you’d sooner imagine the 20-year-old in a bookshop than a brothel. And her image, the beautiful white girl, is at the heart of why the abduction and murder have captured public attention. Facebook forums have been created with the sole purpose of sharing news about her, whether it’s to crowdfund for her funeral or arrange protests at the court appearances of her alleged killer.
She is a prime example of Missing White Woman Syndrome, a term coined by social scientists and media commentators to describe the extensive coverage of cases involving young, white, upper-middle-class women or girls.
Although the term is mainly used to describe disproportionate coverage of missing-person cases, it is sometimes used to describe the disparity in news coverage of other violent crimes.
The case is remarkably similar to Leigh Matthews, the university student whose disappearance and murder in 2004 sparked a public frenzy.
She’d been kidnapped from a university parking lot, with the nation tracking the search for her with bated breath until her body was found dumped in a field two weeks later.
Lee’s case also resembles the 2015 disappearance and murder of Port Elizabeth teacher Jade Panayiotou, who was kidnapped from outside her home and murdered at the behest of her husband.
This is the dominant driver in why the case of Siam Lee received so much attention, from the time she was reported missing on January 4 to the discovery of her burnt body in a sugar plantation three days later.As I wrote this, I received word that a 40-year-old woman was found raped and murdered in KwaMashu’s J-Section. Her skirt had been bunched up and stuffed into her mouth to silence her.
I would be surprised if her image were to ever be emblazoned on a bumper sticker or T-shirt.
This unnamed woman is one of thousands who are brutalised and murdered, their cases never receiving the kind of media attention they should.
Looking at Siam Lee, she is someone you would have seen walking the aisles of a Woolworths foodhall, jogging on the tree-lined streets of an upmarket suburb or at some coffee shop that serves up cappuccinos brewed from ethically sourced beans.
It was a life lived in parallel to the one she’d hidden, the one in which she worked alongside her mother as an escort, a life which strikes at the core of the illusion of white suburban utopia.
People remain in disbelief that something so seedy could be happening next door, or that God forbid some white girl that graced the hallowed halls of a private school could have led a double life as a secret sex worker.Her duplicity served further to engage a curiously, outraged public.
The fact that she and her mother were embroiled in the adult industry in a brothel set in the middle of one of Durban’s most sought-after neighbourhoods was an ugly reality to confront.
But this confrontation was necessary. It was this line of work which can be intrinsically linked to her death as it was a former client that is accused of her murder.
Lee’s disappearance and death further polarised society with a conjured notion of the “swart gevaar”.
From the time she went missing and details that she’d last been seen with the black man caused the following social commentary tinged with racism.
The impression was created that black men were stalking the streets, looking for pretty white girls to snatch.
Mandy Richards posted the following on a Durban North neighbours Facebook group:
“Today the killer of a young white girl in my area [appears in court]. Siam Lee was brutally murdered. We whites just sit back and accept this … lock ourselves up … I pray every night for the safety of my son coming home from work late nights early hours of the morning as it the only job he can get in South Africa.”The arrest of Durban businessman Philani Ntuli regrettably played into the narrative of swart gevaar. The presence of a Democratic Alliance-led vigil calling for Justice for Siam outside court on Friday with posters and T-shirts drove this home.
Much too has been offered on victim-shaming and the role of the media in reporting on Siam and her mother’s work in the sex industry.
We are in the business of sorting fact from fiction and, as her occupation was likely to have had a real influence on her abduction and death, it provides an unfortunate context from which it cannot be divorced.
Had she been killed in a car accident, or in a library, telling the world what she did for a living would have been irrelevant.
In this case, it was brutually relevant and further piqued interest.
With the prospect of a protracted trial – with Ntuli already adding drama with allegations of being tortured in police custody – there will be more than enough to keep the curious public sated for at least another year.
And while the public gasps at every twist and turn likely to emerge during his trial, and with Facebook is awash after every development, hundreds if not thousands more women will be murdered and forgotten because they are not the right colour.