Mike Baillie
Mike Baillie

What the report on SA violence overlooked

A new study, reported on yesterday by the M&G, looks at the nature of violent crime in South Africa. Although the report attributes our high levels of violence to a number of factors, the core problem being a “subculture of violence and criminality”, it seems to have missed what I would argue is the most obvious factor in South Africa’s violence.

If one looks at who is most likely to use violence, you’ll find it is men. Sure, men are also the ones most likely to be on the receiving end of that violence, but the point is that in South Africa, violence most often originates with men. Surely then, when accounting for violence, we need an explanation that takes this into account. We need an explanation that focuses on the link between men and the use of violence.

For example the report argues that one of the factors that contribute to violent crime is poor child rearing and youth socialisation. Gender neutral explanations such as this create the impression that both boys and girls, or men and women, are equally to blame for violence in South Africa. But this isn’t the case. Violence has something to do with the way boys and men are being socialised. It has something to do with what we are teaching our young men, and how they are brought up — in short it has to do with notions of masculinity and manhood.

Another explanation offered by the report focuses on inequality, poverty and unemployment. But again such an explanation means very little when isolated from the fact that men are the perpetrators of violence. What is it about poverty or marginalisation that makes someone not just rob or steal, but first rape and bludgeon? And why is it that poverty and inequality drive more men than women to acts of violence? I would argue that it’s only when we look at this explanation through the lens of masculinity, that we get a better picture.

Keeping it simple, let’s say that manliness in South Africa is about being a provider, being strong, and being respected. Being a man means not being like a woman. So then, being poor and unable to provide may result in feelings of frustration and emasculation, a sense of not being man enough — and it’s these feelings that contribute to violence; the violence being a means of reasserting one’s masculinity. It’s with this in the back of our minds, that using poverty and inequality to account for violence seems a lot more plausible.

Antony Altbeker, one of the report’s authors, argues that levels of employment “can make a difference in the high levels of interpersonal violence and of violence more generally”. Now, again, though unemployment may go some way in accounting for violence, it cannot fully explain its existence. But I would bet my very last dollar that the number of unemployed men who use violence is ridiculously higher than the number of unemployed women. And if that is the case, then it needs to form part of our explanation: we need to look at why unemployed men are resorting to violence so much more frequently than unemployed women. And I’d argue that that question brings us right back to the feelings of emasculation that men associate with being unemployed.

When I saw that this study had been released I was hoping for something new and exciting, perhaps a new explanation for violence in South Africa. Instead we got the same old text-book account of violence — nothing like an actual explanation. And because the report misses the point of South Africa’s violence, so do the solutions it offers.

If you ask me, tackling violence starts with a discussion on masculinity in South Africa. Yes, as the report says, socialisation is an important part acting on violence, but it’s the socialisation of young boys and men that is crucial. The bottom line is that our traditional ideas of what it means to be a man in South Africa are unrealistic in the current context. Unemployment, poverty and inequality are a part of daily life for many men, and so patriarchal ideas of masculinity are bound to create frustration and desperation.

  • George Sorensen

    My aim is to identify more specific and differentiated causal patterns which the study commissioned by the government through the Centre for the Study of Violence and Reconciliation eschews, thereby producing a report riddled with generalisations of quite limited scope. To address these shortcomings, it is important to convert descriptive explanations of case studies into analytical explanations. For this purpose the black boxes of the independent variable “men” needs to be opened up in order to understand the actual process and strategic interaction with “violence”. The findings of such a study can potentially discover new variables or different patterns of interaction between “men” and “violence”, such as cultural background and ethnicity for instance. The findings of such a report are likely to strike in the heart of the principles upon which South Africa’s democracy hovers on and open up a debate on its longer-term sustainability. I feel that this is an important question and hope to publish an article soon, which comes at a time in which political leaders are openly acknowledging the inherent failures of multiculturalism.

    George Sørensen

    @ George S

    I feel that my request may have been unreasonable and fully retract it 😉

    George Sørensen

  • AliceInWonderland

    @ X Cepting

    You have a very…uhmm… one-dimensional view of the conflict between the two Koreas. Are you using CBS news as your only source of information? Perhaps you shouldn’t.

    Anyway, your interpretation of the reasons of South Korea’s economic success (and that’s off topic anyway), namely that South Koreans worked their fingers to the bone because of the North Korean threat on their border is way, way, way off target. So far off the mark that it made me smile, actually. (See news sources other than CBS for more.)

    The point I was trying to make, perhaps unsuccesfully, is that living conditions in many Far East Asian countries are / were as harsh, if not sometimes harsher, than anything in Ahhfrika. (Perhaps that is not something that Africa and Africans, with it’s / their eternal ULTIMATE victim mentality will want to take note of, I accept that.)

    Male chauvinism and (severe) alcohol abuse, for instance, is nothing new in the Far East.

    And yet, and yet… despite the fact that these (Far East Asian) countries struggle with MANY of the same social / political (and so on) issues as countries in Ahhfrika, the “violence levels” (as directed at other people) DO NOT compare.

    Why not?

    In Far East Asia it’s (far) more common to KILL YOURSELF when you have a problem with life the universe and everything. Although that’s sad, I prefer that over the mindless violence directed at The Perpetual Other in Africa.

  • MoBear

    @Aliceinwonderland,
    I like your comments in your posts here. People are just so politically correct so often.
    What is the point of blaming men, poverty etc. Both are in abundance all over the world, yet the violence of the crime in SA is way above most countries where men and poverty occur together.
    I didn’t used to be aggressive, even though I was brought up in a “macho” society, on the South Wales coalfield. Men fought a lot, but they didn’t stab or shoot each other, and abuse of women and children was a no-no. It was considered the ultimately form of cowardice. People were poor but there was very little theft, and a great deal of “ubuntu” in how poor people helped their neighbours and supported each other.

  • Lesego

    “If you read the many comments on articles in the M&G, perhaps you will find, as do I, the virulent hatred which spews when disagreement occurs. I find the violence in this simple act of disagreeing with someone, astonishing.

    I have lived in 8 African countries in the past 40 years, and find intimidating continent-wide, over-empassioned reaction, the screaming, the yelling, the wild-gesticulation, the standing close to the ‘adversary’. This is, I imagine, the point. Most other places don’t have that custom.”

    La Quebecoise on November 10th, 2010 at 4:15 pm

    La Quebecoise, you forgot to mention that only in SA would a citizen have the nerve to actually beat a police man to death. Maybe violent and extremely physical sports like rugby and wrestling even music can drive an individual to being violent. I have seen how subconsciously violent little boys become when they have just watched wrestling. I couldn’t read the report on SA violence cos the link has expired but I know generally what causes a person to be violent. Violent rap music in the states are endorsed by big companies so that it can be instilled in the black youths subconscious to make them violent so that it can create a stigma that blacks are generally violent. Where have you heard of a nice conscious and nonviolent rap song on radio or tv? You won’t see or hear it but they do exist in abundance but those won’t…

  • Lesego

    …but those rap music genres are shunned by music promoters cos they don’t serve their purpose. Go figure.

  • Trevor

    What has always amazed me is the sheer diabolical barbarism of South African crime.I do not want to enumerate these unthinkable acts of violence here, but they belong in the realm of sadistic illness and sub-humanity (thought one could scarce find animals doing these things to each other) I wonder how many countries compare with our unspeakable and horrific inventiveness when it comes to murder, torture and humiliation. No, there’s something else here, but I’m not sure what.

  • X Cepting

    @Aliceinwonderland – Just the only article I came across that gave any outside viewpoint since it is not often that journalists are allowed to enter North Korea and comment on what they see. It also happen to confirm my viewpoint of that corner of Earth from what I’ve seen about North-Korea’s (often brutal) dealings with its neighbour to the south. I have no particular preference to CBS but the article do appear to be credible and too rich in varied detail to be pure fabrication. What to you might appear to be a crime free nirvana, could, in reality be far more brutal behind the scenes. The comment about rallying behind a cause is actually not that far fetched although, it was just that, a comment, on possible effect, through studying many similar causes. I could also have mentioned that the thousands of American troops stationed in South Korea could possibly also have a positive influence, it is a well known fact that visible uniform presence does act as a deterent to crime. Wishing those with problems would just quietly go off and kill themself? Doing the “honorable” thing and killing yourself to wipe out dishonor is an Eastern concept that I have a feeling won’t translate well to Africa. So no solution for Africa really, just wishful thinking. Whilst the causes of crime are myriad the remedies are simple but would take a larger share of tax money. Therein lies the real reason for our crime stats

  • AliceInWonderland

    @ X Cepting
    If the CBS article is the “only” article you came across that gave an “outside” view of North Korea, then maybe you need to consider broadenening your serach.
    There are quite a few informed, reputable sources about NK outside of NK.

    Where do you get the idea from that I consider NK to be “crime-free nirvana”?

    And the: Things like democracy – which is not an African concept – translated quite nicely into Africa (from the West).

    Why not try an idea from the Far East for a change. Such as just removing YOURSELF if you have a problem with everything and everybody INSTEAD OF killing other people.

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