If you combine anger and power in a petri dish you often get violence and abuse. You can take it further and combine a history of male shame, violence as a means to end oppression, and outdated notions of masculinity and the results are pretty scary: you end up with a nation of angry men who often lash out at those who are weaker, younger, and different.
Jen Thorpe’s harrowing piece on a very brazen display of public violence by a drunken man who attacked his female partner speaks to the deficit in our social assistance networks and system – and the effect this has on those who are victims.
It’s probably easiest to diagnose the South African situation as being grave, without engaging with the effect of this systematic abuse and violence on people. We’d much rather shake our heads at the rape statistics, than actually pry open the festering wound that is abuse. This futile exercise doesn’t amount to real discourse about the effect of abuse on our public and private spaces. There’s a deficit in understanding what the victims undergo, and how we can help them. Moreover, the narrative around violence and crime fails to recognise that abuse is a complex and adaptable phenomena – it doesn’t need to leave scars to be problematic. Abuse in any form contributes to a culture of violence and anger.
There’s obviously a big difference between a man who uses psychological and verbal abuse to attack my identity, and a woman who is gang-raped by men who wish to correct her lesbianism. But that’s the point: we can’t keep pretending that the issues of equality, abuse and violent crime are black and white. It simply isn’t just about having a national discourse on gender equality; it’s about human dignity for all. It isn’t just about crime; it’s about the effect of violence on the mental health of others, and the ripple effects of discrimination on the greater community. Just as there is a severe shortfall in an argument which advances the notion that the death penalty is the solution to all of our problems; the notion that violence is an ill which must be tackled independently is incorrect.
There needs to be a clear change in the way we look at abuse:
- Abuse is the cause and effect of all violence. Abuse is specific, it takes many forms and its effect isn’t always clear-cut. A society which only places import on preventing the kinds of abuse that leave scars falls short of actually fighting violence and physical abuse. Invariably abuse results in one party’s power being stripped away and that is an act of violence. To quote Michel Foucault: “A relationship of violence acts upon a body or upon things; it forces, it bends, it breaks, it destroys, or it closes off all possibilities.”
- Whereas I recognise the importance of fighting for women’s rights in the context of violence and abuse, society also needs to move towards identifying any kind of exercise of undue power and coercion as problematic. Abuse is an exercise of power, where the more powerful party acts against the weaker party – perceived or otherwise. Weakness isn’t just related to physical predisposition; it is often defined by difference. It cannot be acceptable for a group of matriculants from the leafy Pretoria East suburbs to think they can assault a beggar, while knowing with certainty that the abuse of their girlfriend would be frowned upon.
- Private spaces cannot be seen as sacrosanct in the context of abuse. Essentially that requires a greater emphasis on changing the attitudes expressed in private because power relations obviously go unseen when they are acted out behind closed doors. That’s why the private sphere shouldn’t be untouchable. But it also requires an active citizenry who won’t defend privacy at the expense of the victims. The gay child who endures psychological bullying by his religious parents, or the wife who cries for help each night but receives a silent response from her neighbours – who hear the abuse, but choose to respect privacy – ought not to have to struggle in solitude.
South Africans shouldn’t have to know that they will bear witness to several acts of violence in the course of their lifetime. There shouldn’t have to be a prevailing fear that your significant other will drunkenly choke you against a wall, or that you will face the threat of rape when you’re alone with a stranger. We all know this. But we certainly don’t know how to tackle the problem. Piecemeal campaigns and ignorance about the nature of violence and crime haven’t helped at all.
It’s time to actively challenge and breakdown power relations by speaking out against the relationships of violence which thrive in South Africa’s society.