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Behind the shock and awe, the violence is ‘normal’

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”.



  1. Boadicea Boadicea 3 April 2013

    Valid points, but maybe overlooks the specific value of violence in achieving political ends, rather than simply as interpersonal dynamics. In SA as in much of the rest of Africa, political transitions and ongoing hegemony have typically been achieved by the group most prepared to unleash systemic violence, and to lay waste the country. This is not too different from Somalia or other countries, where the warlord most prepared to use overt violence or control over resources (UN food supplies etc) achieves hegemony over rival ganglords. Much of the mythology of SA’s ‘peaceful’ transition has been created to fulfil a global image of a peaceful rights-based takeover, driven by those who believe in scandinavian-style human rights and individual freedom. Unfortunately much of this is sheer myth. SA is grounded in its recent history as well as more distant past – and much of that glorified the use of violence as a political tool. The most recent uses of the word ‘democracy’ by leading politicians – in the most cynical sense – is a good example.

  2. Enough Said Enough Said 3 April 2013

    ”Each signals a coming together of oppressive powers related to whiteness, masculinity, heterosexuality and permutations of class.”

    The latest fad in academic thinking. Balls I say.

    There are no oppressive black female deviants? There are no control freak homosexual deviants?

    It won’t take me too long to name a few, but maybe others would like to make up some lists of names.

  3. Anton Anton 4 April 2013

    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. Melanie I don`t know what circumstances in your upbringing has brought you to this present state of mind.The real Church will never create conditions which produce violence. Yes, gender violence is real and a huge challenge, but the current spirit of Violence in SA is a result of bad leadership from the very top down.Bad Leadership= Bad decisions=Anarchy. Thank heaven that there remains sane, rational people who do not develop a skewed mindset, or adopt an unnatural lifestyle, because of childhood experiences.

  4. Foom Foom 4 April 2013

    “Most women murdered in South Africa are killed by an intimate male partner (eight women are killed every hour at the hands of men they know and sometimes love)”

    In fact, it’s one woman every 8 hours:

  5. Xsanga Xsanga 4 April 2013

    I reiterated similar visions and was denied space and time. The real damage occurred under apartheid’s violation of human rights and the fact that generic blacks are still mentally enslaved. The western cape is a perfect example where a handful of whites control the region and the blacks vote the into power. The white majority bosses are mostly to blame. The the springbok rugby team lost in the apartheid times, the bosses would curse the workers and hold them responsible. Nothing has changed. The economy is still owned by the whites (17% black). You can not change white perspective or their racism. Poverty and unemployment created by white bosses

  6. Amanda Amanda 4 April 2013

    Enough said why don’t you engage the arguments of Melanie, rather than finding someone/something to blame? Melanie is trying to contextualize the violence in South Africa by looking at its colonial and apartheid roots. Of course all groups have deviants but this is not the point. How should we go about explaining lesbian killings and 64 514 rapes last year? All done by deviants? I don’t think so. As far as religion is concerned – most religions are patriarchal and I want to know how the “real church” is addressing the violence in South Africa. Which church has mobilized or demonstrated against violence? Which church have mobilized its men to show solidarity with women against violence? Many women are subjected and oppressed in the name of relgion.

  7. Honkie Tonk Honkie Tonk 4 April 2013

    As long as you play the victim you will be the victim.

    Play the blame game and be a victim (whiteness, apartheid, males, homosexuals, the anti-Christ etc, etc) , or make a mind shift and get in charge of your life.

  8. Dave Harris Dave Harris 5 April 2013

    Violence is normal in SA because laws alone cannot undo the sheer brutality of centuries of white oppression.

    Violence is normal in SA because we are still mired in the outdated Christian Nationalist Education system that distorts and marginalizes the morality and values of indigenous cultures.

    Violence is normal in SA because those very human-rights organizations, feminist groups etc. are silent to our continued desensitization of violence by mainstream media’s (remember the famous gang-rape cartoonist?) constant stereotyping of black men as rapists and violent criminals.

    Violence is normal in SA because we still largely do not understand or appreciate one of South Africa’s greatest creations – the power of Mahatma Gandhi’s philosophy (loosely translated in the west as “non-violence”) even though its adopted all over the world in activist politics and taught in schools in conflict resolution.

    Violence is normal in SA because our eurocentric retributive justice system is outdated and needs to be overhauled by more humane traditional courts.

  9. GrahamJ GrahamJ 5 April 2013

    It should have read…
    The real damage occurred under the ANCs violation of human rights with our flawed constitution and the fact that generic whites are still despised and marginalised. The western cape is a perfect example where competent people control the region and the majority voted them into power. The dim proletariate are mostly to blame foe what goes wrong. The springbok rugby team won in the nationalist times because the bosses would encourage the workers and hold them responsible. Nothing has changed. The economy is still owned by the competent people (of whom many are black). You can not change black perspectives or their racism. Poverty and unemployment are created by incompetent people.

  10. shaz shaz 7 April 2013

    Anton, I think it has nothing at all to do with Melanie’s upbringing. It has everything to do with reality.
    I’m not sure which Church would be “the real Church”. Most I know steadfastly hold onto the following parts of the written word ~ “For the husband is the head of the wife”, “Let a woman learn quietly with all submissiveness”, “Wives, submit to your own husbands”..
    It really isn’t difficult to see how these words can easily be used and are used, to justify violence against women ~ against wives, girlfriends, partners. One needs to sit with a group of clergy and listen to what presents ~ Intimate partner violence is far from uncommon.

  11. Comrade Koos Comrade Koos 7 April 2013

    @Dave Harris

    Who loves singing ‘bring me my macine gun’ and who loves singing ‘kill the boer’?

    People who understand Mahatma Ghandi’s philosophy of non-violence?

  12. Jess R Jess R 16 April 2013

    People don’t ask to be hurt, raped killed, etc. Violence is never okay. The fact that violence has been accepted and allowed to be ‘normal’ is a problem in itself.

  13. Mike J. Mike J. 16 April 2013

    Women need to take back their rights!! They need to fight back!! If they don’t do it, who else will?! Yes, rape is a matter of power over others and not whether one asked for it, but women should try to find preventative measure to ensure their safety.

  14. Ngwenya Ngwenya 27 May 2013

    @ Dave Harris: yes, we do not value the traditional. But talk to some black women about how much more humane those traditional courts are, please!

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