Kristin Palitza
Kristin Palitza

Why we resort to violence

It’s raining outside and the sky is hanging low in a saturated grey, so I can’t even justify why I love this country so much with the weather. And right now, I don’t exactly feel like justifying it by explaining what a wonderful society we are. Because at the moment, it’s really hard to believe that that’s even remotely close to the truth.

I’ve been trying hard to get my head around the question of why this society so easily resorts to violence for quite a while now. The issue is complex, but it seems to revolve around one major issue: We achieved political democracy in 1994, but we have dramatically failed to create social and economic democracy or justice. Our huge rate of unemployment, to give just one example, (above 60% if one doesn’t count informal employment) could be called a national crisis.

At the same time, there is a small but steadily growing elite that benefits from the country’s resources, while the poor get poorer and the gap between the two groups widens with every year. So where does that leave us?

Literary critic and social philosopher, Rene Girard, says it’s a natural tendency for human beings to compare themselves with others. This comparison typically leads to a sense of lack. We look around and begin to feel that others possess things that we don’t, so we want to compete for these possessions.

If the majority of society is made up of people who lack and want to compete, we have a recipe for disaster because it turns people into rivals and leads to antagonism, conflict, violence and a potential war of all against all. It also leads to what Girard calls “scapegoat mechanism” — a development we all have observed during the recent weeks.

So maybe this is what has been happening in South Africa: Being poor surrounded by a wealthy environment has bred, quite understandably, a desire for a better life. It also triggered growing frustration with the realisation that this desire will probably never be fulfilled and, even worse, that the leaders of our not-so-new-anymore democracy are not really prepared to listen (or else, they pretend to listen but do very little to make the necessary changes).

That explains the dissatisfaction, the frustration, the feeling of indignity, the anger. But why are these — justified — emotions turned so easily into violence? Everyone seems to have their weapon of choice at the ready, to be pulled out swiftly from underneath their beds if need arises.

In most instances, using violence to solve social or economic issues, or reaching any goal for that matter, has hardly proven to be productive. Which leads to the question: If we have truly tried all other ways of protest — lobbying, marching, campaigning, collecting signatures — and have been ignored in such a perpetual manner, is there is no other way we can think of to induce change? Or do we simply not even bother anymore?

Of course, calls for violence from the country’s leadership don’t help the cause at all. Malema announcing that the ANCYL is “prepared to kill” and “die and take up arms” for Zuma is clearly making a bad situation even worse. And what the hell does he mean anyway, when talking about fighting against “counter-revolutionary” forces? Forces countering which revolution exactly? Are we having a revolution?

Violence quickly becomes a culture, a way of life. Those who exercise violence are regarded as “doing something” about their plight, while others just passively sit and complain. The do-ers gain social status, respect and even admiration in their communities for being proactive, for not silently taking it anymore. This makes violence very attractive.

There is another appeal to it: Violence is mostly impulsive, an immediate response that doesn’t take major planning, the patience of going through bureaucratic processes, negotiation, compromise. It provides quick satisfaction, even though it might not lead to the achievement of the ultimate goal (for example more government-sponsored housing, job creation, better health care).

And this, unfortunately, might explain my initial question: Why does it always have to be violence? Because, often, it’s the easiest way to react. What we forget is this: It’s simply not sustainable in the long term and, most of all, doesn’t make things better.