Masana Ndinga-Kanga
Masana Ndinga-Kanga

Understanding violent behaviour in South Africa

* Understanding does not mean condoning

The current state of affairs across the world has made peace and security a pressing concern not just in policy circles, but also in public discourse. Issues of marginalisation and violence continue to plague numerous parts of the world, with often dire results: The rise of Isis in the Arab world, the prevalence of social unrest in South America and European countries grappling with challenges in their political economy, or poor policing decisions in US. The trend globally has been that intrastate conflict has escalated while there has been a notable decline in interstate conflict. This means that South Africa is not unique in having to deal with what seems like a sharp rise in domestic social tension, in an increasingly democratic and globalising world. The very nature of our international political economy has heightened internal tensions, while limiting the options available to states for reform given the prevailing values of a democratic world. Much of the conflict we are currently witnessing is owed to structural challenges that alienate a broad spectrum of people in different ways.

Psychosocial precursors to violence
What explains violent and high-risk behaviour, particularly among the young? Jim Cochrane and Gary Gunderson have developed a multi-disciplinary model to explain the five psychosocial “leading causes of life”. In order for a human being to make sense of the world, they need a sense of hope, agency, connections, inter-generational relationships and coherence. If these five aspects are not provided through positive channels, prevalent negative channels step in to allow people to make sense of the world and their place in it. This explains the appeal of gangs — they provide hope, agency, connections and a sense of coherence much needed by our young men and women. Similarly, drug abuse, domestic violence, and even racism, a sense of privilege or xenophobia are passed on as learned behaviour to younger generations through observations and narratives about the world. While not set in stone, unless there is an intervention, children closely observe how their parents respond to conflict and imitate that behaviour. In order to deal with the consequences of marginalising power structures that lead to violent behaviour we need to address the psychosocial concerns that make them possible.

Continued structures that perpetuate injustice
Despite its importance, it would be a farce to address only the psychosocial concerns that lead to violence. This is an important factor in full development and rehabilitation, but the material concerns that give rise to violence and negative behaviours are pervasive. Controversially, I would like to argue that townships and informal settlements should not exist, they were created forcefully on systems of injustice. To remedy a neighbourhood entrenched with such complexities without addressing the historical challenges that make it possible for negativity to thrive is like putting a plaster on a rotting wound.

The violence of apartheid has been restructured in development discourse as inevitable given the conditions that many South Africans were facing. With the advent of democracy the discourse and language surrounding violence shifted, and was reframed as deviant and unwelcome — particularly by those in power who themselves had been part of a violent struggle. Instead of being understood as an outcome of injustice, violence was interpreted as something to be squashed — as Marikana highlights.

But as it was then, so it is now, violence represents an expression of desperation for channels of engagement and reform, articulated through learned behaviour. Characteristic during the apartheid era, and early years following Nelson Mandela’s release, was how violence was concentrated in areas of stark deprivation aimed at accessible targets instead of the expected perpetrators of injustice. People incorrectly channelled frustrations about the world to those within reach. This bears a strong resemblance to the recent xenophobic attacks targeting false enemies to express a misplaced frustration at the slow pace of transformation in the country. It cannot be accepted by any means whatsoever. But unless the root causes of these violent outbreaks are addressed, the future does not bode well.

The conditions that gave rise to violent and disruptive behaviour and marginalisation have barely shifted. While this is not to say that nothing has been accomplished in democratic SA since 1994, it is perhaps pointing to Frantz Fanon’s ominous predictions for post-colonial states — the structures have stayed the same, while the faces have changed colour.

It is also important to ask if development as we now frame it can take place without social disruption. Development might be a zero-sum game if we do not change the rules that determine it. In this way, South Africa is least unique. The global political economy is hostile to the kind of transformation envisaged in our Constitution: free flowing capital, low trade barriers and fluctuating exchange rates might cause established multinational corporations to thrive but have dire outcomes for unemployment, labour and small enterprises — the backbone of any economic development. China’s poor labour conditions and environmental challenges point to this. We need to ask who is paying the ultimate cost for our development, and who is reaping the ultimate reward of our current policy regime. It is a misconception that the political economy is governed by an invisible capitalistic hand that cannot be shifted. But how it should change is still to be answered.

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