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The real face of violence in South Africa

By Dariusz Dziewanski

Violence in South Africa is nothing new. Both the devastating effects of violence, and the risk factors underlying it, have existed before the Oscar Pistorius trial and will continue to exist after it. What will cease to exist is a media and public fascination with violence. As interest wanes, violence will no longer have a face. Nor will it be splashed across the front pages of newspapers in penetrating personal analyses that border on mania. Violence, and portrayals of violence, will return to “normal”, to be parsed out a paragraph at time and buried among the inner folds of the nation’s newspapers.

And, still, violence will persist in places like the Cape Flats. Though Cape Town was recently dubbed South Africa’s “deadliest city”, you would never know it by visiting the central City Bowl. With its iconic panoramas of Table Mountain, it is glossy and serene. But no more than twenty minutes away, fierce battles are played out between rival gangs. Last year, for instance, a surge in gang violence prompted education officials in Manenberg to close sixteen schools for two days.

Yet few South Africans — or Capetonians for that matter — know anything of substance about neighbourhoods like these — other than, of course, the fact that they are violent. So violence exists as a faceless phenomenon, without the personalised storylines or characterisations afforded the Pistorius trial. There are no processes of humanisation, and thus there is no empathy. Violence is predation, perpetrated by caricatures of gangsters and skollies. Within such one-dimensional stereotypes, the Cape Flats is a forsaken underworld, best renounced to moralistic dichotomies of good and evil, and the heavy-handed approach to policing this thinking promotes. By extension, young coloured men are seen principally as security threats — exactly the kind of abstract bogeymen Pistorius claims to have defended himself against.

Lost is any real account of the lives of the men and women affected by the violence, as well as the stories of the communities that live with it and work against it. Also unaccounted for is the fact that a great many of those that are shooting — and getting shot — are fifteen-to-seventeen years old, or even younger. In other words, these are typically boys who are forced to navigate morality in a context where violence and death are a weekly, if not daily, occurrence. They have often been pushed onto the streets due to problems at home, and into gangs for protection or for respect, in circumstances that are lacking sufficient opportunities for jobs or empowerment. There are also those hopeful examples who have successfully escaped violent lives. Others have tried, but have been pulled back in — usually due to some combination of familial dislocation, lack of work, or personal struggles with substance abuse. Thus, though they may be “gangsters”, these boys are also human beings, with real hopes, fears, and aspirations towards a better life.

I use the Cape Flats as an example because I have been conducting research in Hanover Park for the last half-year. But violence is similarly present and disregarded across the country. The victims of this violence are black, coloured, Indian, and white, women and men, rich and poor, famous and unknown. While the stories of Pistorius and Reeva Steenkamp deserve attention, there are other poignant personal histories across this spectrum of experience that are ignored, and have been ignored for decades. Surely such stories deserve real attention as well. Not a matter-of-fact reporting of time, place, and cause of death, but real attention; in narratives as penetrating and rich as is necessitated by the lives they represent. And if these stories do not deserve attention, the conclusion can only be that Steenkamp’s death is exceptional, while the violent death of a seventeen-year-old boy or girl living in the Cape Flats is normal. In other words, violence is acceptable for some and not for others.

In the next months, a verdict will be issued in the Pistorius trial. The trial will end and the hysteria around it will disappear. If anything, its real lasting impact of the trial may be the opportunity it offers for an introspective dialogue about the national struggle with violence. But to be truly impactful, this dialogue cannot privilege the experiences of some, while disregarding others. It must itself be a projection of the democratic ideal of the rainbow nation. Otherwise it ignores the common humanity of all South Africans and the claims to full citizenship of each individual. What is more, to look away from the atrocities being committed, is itself to do violence; not only by ignoring the senseless killing of boys and girls, but by allowing another kind of “structural violence”, which kills slowly through alienation, exclusion, and marginalisation. And if one is to condemn those who carry out violence in such circumstances, one must also condemn the systems that sustain that violence, and the role of wider South African society in perpetrating these systems — if only by omission.

Dariusz Dziewanski works as a researcher and consultant in international development, currently conducting research in Cape Town on issues related to violence. Follow at: @ddziewan

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    • Yaj

      Good article. The root cause of all this violence and the structural violence in particular is our debt-based money system of compound interest and fractional reserve banking itself. This man-made money system is designed to concentrate wealth and power in the hands of the few , constantly and systematically impoverishing the weaker and more vulnerable majority while keeping us all in a perpetual state of financial stress in meeting our debt obligations and keeping the wolf from the door,It is insidious and all pervasive in its effect on society, determining our behaviour , our fears and insecurities in a world of survival of only the fittest. We are fed the myths of trickle-down effects,of rags-to riches and entrepreneurial endeavour as the panaceas..
      When.essentially , we need to fundamentally change this system to one of public credit and 100%(full)reserve banking and public banking in order to deal with the root cause of poverty, inequality, marginalisation and exclusion-the structural violence of the system.
      see ,

    • Cam Cameron

      One cannot, in all good conscience, personalise each and every Cape Flats murder as one can personalise the Reeva Steenkamp killing, perpetrated by a world-famous South African. Just as one cannot personalise the murder of the world-famous John Lennon, by an American nobody called Mark Chapman. World-famous people — whether as culprit or as victim — make everything that is sadly too commonplace quite extraordinary.

      You cannot wish this away, nor wish to have every death given exactly equal media coverage (which would effectively reduce every murder to a mere miniscule dot on a daily landscape the size of a football field.)

      And once the hue and cry of a celebrity trial fades away, so too will the underlying social landscape return to its dull, anonymous normality. Just as how it did after the OJ Simpson trial in the USA. We all know this, don’t we?

    • Shaman sans frontieres

      The Marikana atrocity. The news today that ANC leaders canvassing in Bekkersdal allowed their personal security guards to fire live ammo at protesters. The huge number of abused, raped, neglected children. The frequent fatal exposure of neonates. The deeply entrenched attitudes of entitlement, resentment, suspicion, and patriarchal male power, across SA society. It is not a pretty picture.

    • Devin Purvis


      I’m sure economics and inequality play a huge part in driving violent crime. But you also can’t ignore the fact that the face of violence is overwhelmingly, and undeniably, a male one.

      In 2011 there were 3762 woman sentenced or awaiting trial in SA prisons …. and 158400 men.

      Us okes are going wrong in a major, major way.

    • bernpm

      Having had the opportunity to visit Cape Town more frequently over the last two years, I would call this city a colossal publicity fraud. A beauty competition where they only show the front of the models and not their obvious bodily short comings, let alone the mental ones.
      I do hate Cape Town with a passion! Living in the Northern Cape I do have to go there occasionally but try to keep that to an absolute minimum. Luckily the Government of the Western Cape assist us by intensive roadworks along the N7, for us the major route to this city.

    • bernpm

      @Yaj: I do support your line of thinking that the root cause of societal unrest, leading to violence is in the uneven distribution of wealth. As you, I am a follower of this movement off “positive money”. Glad to hear that the British government is slowly lending an ear to this. But………..a long way to go. The claws of the mondial financial powers are deeply dug into society.

    • Yaj

      @ Devin Purvis, even under the best of conditions men would far outnumber women as perpetrators of violence , anyway. So what is your point ?
      The current system brings out the very worst in all of us. It is a systemic problem creating unbearable living conditions for the majority of people in this country and in this world. And with rapid depletion of dwindling resources there may be worse to come .
      Action is needed now and we need to all collectively don our thinking caps very seriously to avert disaster.

    • Yaj

      thank you for the support. At last there is someone on this site that shares this understanding of the underlying problem-the monetary system. And thanks for the link.

    • Devin Purvis


      Please, don’t get me wrong, I’m pretty certain that our current exploitative (on every level) way of running the world is very close to wiping us all off the face of the earth.

      All I’m saying is that, if economics/inequality drives rates of violent crime (as it does), and the vast majority of perpetrators are men (as they are), then surely violent crime must also have its roots in gender….

      So, unless you believe in some kind of social biological/genetic determinist explanation of gender behaviour, then there must be something in our culture and society that encourages masculine violence.

      Also, isn’t it possible that more structural forms of violence have their roots in similar world views?

      Isn’t that worth looking at?

      But not, of course, as a substitute for reforming/replacing financial and political institutions.

    • Yaj

      there is a gender root to violence-this could be biological testosterone driven behaviour which can also be observed in the less evolved beings in the animal kingdom.This almost intrinsic propensity for violence may never be eradicated in totality but I would argue can be mitigated by more just economic conditions and a system that promotes co-operation and community over competition and survival of only the fittest and those with superior violence capabilities. The history of human beings is characterised by violence and dispossession perpetrated mainly by the male gender of the species.

    • nguni

      The ‘boys’ committing all the violence on the Cape Flats were brought up badly. That’s the bottom line, no ignoring parental responsibility by blaming everything on ‘structural’ violence. Of course society there is complicit in the murders as they hide the perpetrators.