The murders of miners at Marikana by brutal state apparatus, the rape and murder of Anene Booysen by a group of men, and the killing of Reeva Steenkamp by her male lover have common threads. All three reflect a confluence of systems of violence that span centuries. Each is a product of past and prevailing conditions of inequality. Each signals a coming together of oppressive powers related to whiteness, masculinity, heterosexuality and permutations of class.

Viewed as a system, violence mediates the relationship between “us” and “others”. The social identities we assume, or that are structurally imposed upon us, are bound to the existence of an other/others — those not like us. Simply put, to be heterosexual is not to be gay, to be a man is not to be a woman, to be white is not to be black. Thus each identity is dependent on the construction of its opposite number, and so shaped by that which it is not. This construction of the self and others, in accordance with false binaries, produces a sense of belonging and place in the world. It is also hinged onto conceptions of difference and the meanings we attribute to it.

Apartheid and colonialism institutionalised and legislated “difference” (of a racial, gendered and sexual nature) in order to justify the unequal treatment of those marked as inferior or as threatening others. Violence was central to entrenching these inequalities and keeping their associated mythologies of “essential difference” intact.

The binaries that underpin violence
More specifically, mutually exclusive gender and sexuality categories (man/woman, gay/straight) and related norms and practices are produced and perpetuated through violence. In this sense, gender violence operates as a system which keeps these binary categories in place. Its lifeblood is the unequal power relations between men and women.

A woman gets assaulted at a taxi rank for wearing a mini-skirt; another has her house burned down for wearing pants. A lesbian is raped to “show her she is not a man” and to punish her gender transgression; a gay man is bashed for not being “man enough”. Women are taught to fear violence, to expect violence from men, and not to exercise violence because they are women.

Masculinity is achieved through gender violence. Certain forms of “manliness” are predicated on men’s violent use of power over women and against those men perceived as weak or “unmanly”. This assertion of “manhood”, which is perceived as normal or natural, kills women (the case of Oscar Pistorius seems to be an example here). The hierarchies that exist between men require violence to be maintained and so men too are its victims. Male homicide rates in South Africa are among the highest in the world and are comparable with countries that are at war.

Gender violence works as a strategy of discipline and control over persons’ lives and bodies. It systematically ensures compliance with strict gender and sexual codes. It is employed by all of us, and against all of us. It defines what “real men” and “real women” should be and what happens to them if they’re not.

Performance of surprise at everyday violence
Most women murdered in South Africa are killed by an intimate male partner (that’s one woman every eight hours). One in three women is raped in their lifetime, and most are physically abused by their partners or ex-partners. Yet, the tendency to monsterise and pathologise the individual men who rape and murder women obscures this proximity of violence — that the perpetrators and victims are mostly known to us.

This everyday violence and its logics are frequently hidden. Powerful institutions like the family, the university, the church and the state (which act as regulatory forces) operate in ways that protect the conditions of gender inequality that produce violence. Often it is these very institutions that maintain the conditions for violence. The exposure of Wits’s complicity in hiding the everyday violences women are experiencing on that campus is such an example.

The shock and awe response that often follows reports of violence against women exposes a kind of “performance of surprise” — an incredulity which acts to conceal just how very “normal”, how every day, violence is. It is the everyday conditions that make violence possible and probable. As a social practice, violence is made permissible through normalised, everyday discriminations, such as misogynist and homophobic practices that are institutionalised. These discourses of prejudice — often legitimised through cultural and religious narratives — make material acts of violence imaginable and explicable.

In the mix is also structural violence, which refers to a status quo wherein unequal power relations, and their impact on the trajectory of individuals’ lives, are institutionalised.

Inequality as violent
Social systems are violent when they actively lock people out of livelihoods and deny them the basic rights and needs essential to human dignity (a toilet, a home, a job, the ability to walk a street without fear). The maintenance of structural inequalities demands physical violence, which may be enacted by known men, in the case of the murders of Booysen and Steenkamp, or by an increasingly militarised police force, in the case of the Marikana murders. Such violence has a disproportionate effect on those trapped at the social and economic margins.

The on-going assault on the human dignity and freedom of some, and the insulation of the power and privileges of others, and the interrelationship between these two states of being, are seldom part of our public discourse on violence.

In post-apartheid South Africa, violence is perhaps the most instructive marker of the continuities between past and present. The enduring effects of the racialised and sexualised discrimination of apartheid are integral to present day violence.

How do individual and group identities maintain the “normal” conditions that render the violation of others so possible? How, through our direct actions and utterances, or through actions undertaken by people or structures “in our name” (as “whites”, as “men”, as “middle class”) do we normalise and naturalise violence?

The place of violence is the place of politics in present-day South Africa. It is both gruesome and simultaneously banal. It is a place each one of us inhabits in one form or another. And for as long as we remain — or are allowed to remain — content with the dividends we may derive from the unequal positioning of others, violence will continue “as normal”.



Melanie Judge

Melanie is a feminist activist and scholar. She collaborates with NGOs and donors on strategy, communications and research to advance social justice. Melanie has been extensively involved in advocacy to...

Leave a comment