Gender – although unmarked in many reports – is central to key stories in the news these days. It is gender – in the form of patriarchal masculinity – that is on trial in the high-profile cases currently before the courts.

Marianne Thamm is one of those who has drawn attention to the way in which gender is implicated in one of these high-profile cases. She says in a Daily Maverick article that one of the men convicted of killing Anni Dewani, Xolile Mngeni, did so because he didn’t “have enough money to undergo ritual circumcision that would make him ‘a man’. He was 25 at the time and had grown tired of being insulted by his peers for still being ‘a boy’.”

To put that another way, Mngeni was an adult male who was not a man, and until he found the resources to perform the appropriate social rites, he could not be seen – by himself and others – as a “man”.

The need to belong is very powerful. We all identify with (or are identified by others as) belonging or not belonging to a range of groups in society at any time. While the specifics will vary from person to person, the most salient group identities in contemporary South Africa are structured around binaries of race, class, gender, sexuality, ethnicity, age and religion. Two hundred years ago, one might have added slave/free to that list.

Feminist scholars have shown how gender intersects with identities structured around race, class etc, and some have also suggested that gender is the most significant. If our ability or desire to belong to the gender we are assigned to at birth is compromised, then our sense of self is profoundly affected. For Mngeni, Thamm suggests, poverty intersected with ethnicity to compromise his gender – his sense of himself as a man. It was the anxiety and stress associated with this compromised masculinity – Mngeni’s inability to belong as a man – that informed decisions that, in this analysis, ended in the murder of Anni Dewani.

While I may be jumping the gun here, it is possible that her husband Shrien Dewani’s sense of himself as a man is also important in understanding her murder. Media speculation suggests that Dewani’s sexuality will be important to the state’s case; that the state will argue that the marriage was in effect a forced marriage undertaken to camouflage Dewani’s sexual preferences against a homophobic family/social background. Widowhood – under such exceptional circumstances – would protect Dewani from social or family pressure to engage visibly in heterosexual relationships in the future. In this explanatory narrative, then, it is sexuality intersecting with gender that compromises Dewani’s sense of himself as a man, which precipitates the decisions that ended in the murder of his bride.

Understandings of masculinity are central to the trial of Oscar Pistorius too. A recent report suggests that Pistorius’ life and career have been structured around overcompensation for the ways in which he could not live up to expectations of a masculinity characterised by physical prowess relative to other men.

Research, locally and globally, suggests that physical ability and heterosexual preferences are central to contemporary understandings of patriarchal masculinity. A couple of years ago, for example, my colleagues and I asked about 150 third-year students to conduct interviews with middle-aged men about what they understood manhood to be. For the vast majority of the men interviewed, being a man meant having a heterosexual relationship with at least one subordinate female partner while standing (and being seen to stand) alone. Doing masculinity required a man to juggle the tensions involved in a relationship with a woman while simultaneously demonstrating emotional, financial and physical independence and autonomy. In their analyses, my students pointed to the dominance of understandings of masculinity as founded on a denial of mutual interdependencies and vulnerabilities, and as an expression of (heteropatriarchal) authority and power over both women and other men.

At the same time, as the following quotes suggest, there were traces of alternative understandings of gender, versions foregrounding mutual reliance and respect:

“To be a man I think, first things first, you need to respect other people, because that is what my father told us … What my uncle really told me is everybody makes mistakes and you need to be forgiving in order to live in peace with other people.”

“My uncle was always a humble man. When there is a conflict he would try to resolve it by talking to the parties that are involved.”

“My father was a very easy man to understand, so I never feel that anyone of us felt scared of him in my life … That was a thing that he taught amongst us, telling us that if you fear one another, that means that it will difficult to ask for help from one another.”

While many South African men aspire to these more egalitarian versions of masculinity, there are many others who are unable – through no fault of their own – to live up to the more patriarchal masculinities described earlier. Elevated unemployment rates, poor education and non-heterosexual preferences, combined with physical and other challenges, compromise many men’s sense of identity.

The high rates of violence for which South Africa is renowned is, in this analysis, an expression of men’s anxieties and insecurities around their gender and the difficulties of being perceived as men. Because those anxieties are social rather than pathological, they can be transformed. But to challenge the inequalities and hierarchies expressed by gender, patriarchal versions of masculinity must be named, publicly critiqued, convicted and condemned.


  • Lindsay Clowes is a feminist historian based in the Women's & Gender Studies Department at the University of the Western Cape. Follow her on Twitter @lindsayclowes


Lindsay Clowes

Lindsay Clowes is a feminist historian based in the Women's & Gender Studies Department at the University of the Western Cape. Follow her on Twitter @lindsayclowes

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