Kristin Palitza
Kristin Palitza

Why we resort to violence

It’s raining outside and the sky is hanging low in a saturated grey, so I can’t even justify why I love this country so much with the weather. And right now, I don’t exactly feel like justifying it by explaining what a wonderful society we are. Because at the moment, it’s really hard to believe that that’s even remotely close to the truth.

I’ve been trying hard to get my head around the question of why this society so easily resorts to violence for quite a while now. The issue is complex, but it seems to revolve around one major issue: We achieved political democracy in 1994, but we have dramatically failed to create social and economic democracy or justice. Our huge rate of unemployment, to give just one example, (above 60% if one doesn’t count informal employment) could be called a national crisis.

At the same time, there is a small but steadily growing elite that benefits from the country’s resources, while the poor get poorer and the gap between the two groups widens with every year. So where does that leave us?

Literary critic and social philosopher, Rene Girard, says it’s a natural tendency for human beings to compare themselves with others. This comparison typically leads to a sense of lack. We look around and begin to feel that others possess things that we don’t, so we want to compete for these possessions.

If the majority of society is made up of people who lack and want to compete, we have a recipe for disaster because it turns people into rivals and leads to antagonism, conflict, violence and a potential war of all against all. It also leads to what Girard calls “scapegoat mechanism” — a development we all have observed during the recent weeks.

So maybe this is what has been happening in South Africa: Being poor surrounded by a wealthy environment has bred, quite understandably, a desire for a better life. It also triggered growing frustration with the realisation that this desire will probably never be fulfilled and, even worse, that the leaders of our not-so-new-anymore democracy are not really prepared to listen (or else, they pretend to listen but do very little to make the necessary changes).

That explains the dissatisfaction, the frustration, the feeling of indignity, the anger. But why are these — justified — emotions turned so easily into violence? Everyone seems to have their weapon of choice at the ready, to be pulled out swiftly from underneath their beds if need arises.

In most instances, using violence to solve social or economic issues, or reaching any goal for that matter, has hardly proven to be productive. Which leads to the question: If we have truly tried all other ways of protest — lobbying, marching, campaigning, collecting signatures — and have been ignored in such a perpetual manner, is there is no other way we can think of to induce change? Or do we simply not even bother anymore?

Of course, calls for violence from the country’s leadership don’t help the cause at all. Malema announcing that the ANCYL is “prepared to kill” and “die and take up arms” for Zuma is clearly making a bad situation even worse. And what the hell does he mean anyway, when talking about fighting against “counter-revolutionary” forces? Forces countering which revolution exactly? Are we having a revolution?

Violence quickly becomes a culture, a way of life. Those who exercise violence are regarded as “doing something” about their plight, while others just passively sit and complain. The do-ers gain social status, respect and even admiration in their communities for being proactive, for not silently taking it anymore. This makes violence very attractive.

There is another appeal to it: Violence is mostly impulsive, an immediate response that doesn’t take major planning, the patience of going through bureaucratic processes, negotiation, compromise. It provides quick satisfaction, even though it might not lead to the achievement of the ultimate goal (for example more government-sponsored housing, job creation, better health care).

And this, unfortunately, might explain my initial question: Why does it always have to be violence? Because, often, it’s the easiest way to react. What we forget is this: It’s simply not sustainable in the long term and, most of all, doesn’t make things better.

  • Alisdair Budd

    There are unfortunately, such things as a just war. And nonviolence can sometimes be more destructive.

    As Mahatma Gandhi said when asked if he thought passive resistence would work against Hitler: “I think it would take a very long time.”

    Unfortunately six million jews, several million russians, another several million Chinese, and collected Europeans didn’t have time to wait.

    Perhaps we should all sit around praying and wringing our hands whilst several million starve, are tortured, beaten, raped, murdered, driven out of their homes, and lose everything in a haze of political terror, and then suggest a Govt of National Unity with the Nationalist Socialist Movement wih Hitler as the President and Eisenhower as the Prime Minister, allowing a transitional govt with Geobbles and Georing allowed to keep their positions in Charge of the Militia and Armed forces before allowing Hilter to retire as an Elder statesman and hand over power to Himmler, the head of the SS in charge of the gas ovens.

    Because he shares his “poliical Vision”, and see how that goes down.

    Then you might realise why Africa and SA and ZIm looks a laughing stock all over the world and why so many countries in it cant understand why their population keeps revolting against the politicians that were responsible for the murder and displacement of their entire village and extended family and expect them not to be violent, when it was violence that put those politicians and their patronisingly hypocritical attitude in place in the first place.

    Especially in those countries (such as Congo) that include former freedom fighters in an “integrated” police and army, thereby expecting the population to trust and report crimes to those who carried out war atrocities.

    (Feel free to read any UN report for examples of former war victims walking into a police station to apply for a market trading licence and coming face to face with the person they watched rape, torture and murder their family in front of them a few years before, since he (she) is now the desk sargeant.)

    When you realise exactly how much time Africa and the UN spend politically rewarding the use of violence and then hypocritially expecting the victims not to use it in self- defence, let alone revenge attacks you might realise why so many people are taught by example that violence works and that revenge is the only justice availeable to them.

    Otherwise start having a “fairly” reliable justice system that people can trust in, not that provokes them into fighting back, by incompetence or persecution.

  • amused reader

    Nice article, lots of questions, but alas, few answers.

    What to do? The ANC must go for the good of this country.

  • owen


    If we measured our economy against other developed countries ours would be stuck in the great depression such is our unemploment rate.

    However, perhaps the majority are unemployable (high level of illiteracy) or just don’t want to work – hence the high crime rate – why not be a professional criminal as its beats hard work and jail time does not happen and so is not a deterent.

    To solve the unemployment situation we have to turn our people into builders and away from seeing themselves as victims.

    However, people like Malema get their cue from JZ and Uncle Bob. JZ sings Umshini wami, which is in essence a war song. No job creation there only negative destructive thoughts that don’t build a future.

    The ANC leadership under JZ are still destructuve liberation fighters. They are not builders like Thabo.

  • walume raymond manyoki

    i agree to disagree that the current political wave in south africa have been a long margnalisation of the society,the deeply divided sector of the society has created two classes,accordind to marxist, few elite and the majority poor,coupled with the high standard of living the society becomes valnarable to violence,violence becomes a weapon of war as a last resort.

    and what the hell is wrong with Malema and the ANCYL Wanting to fight…well,obvious our political leaders in ANC are fancied and illusionised by the media and their choice of words especiall those with war rhetorics,are a reflection of their weakness and for gods sake…we are not at war and we will not vote for such leaders that want to drive this great country to the road of distruction…if you think war is progressive…just look at iraq and get back to me.

  • Etienne

    Publicly inciting violence.Is their a law against it?