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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.


  • Masana Ndinga-Kanga is currently Senior Research Officer at the Centre for the Study of Violence and Reconciliation. When she is not trying to make sense of the chaos of living, she is an avid family-fanatic, and untrained wine, coffee and chocolate enthusiast. With a multi-disciplinary background in politics, economics, international development and law, Masana has an MSc in Political Economy of Late Development from the London School of Economics and Political Science. Prior to this, she worked as the Machel-Mandela Intern at The Brenthurst Foundation in Johannesburg and is also an alumnus of the South African Washington Internship Program and a Chevening Scholar from 2012–13. You can follow her on Twitter here: She writes in her personal capacity.


  1. YajChetty YajChetty 20 April 2015

    How it should be changed? We can start with a sovereign money system like Iceland is currently seriously researching and contemplating. A public banking system of deposit-taking banks like the Bank of North Dakota. A universal basic citizen’s income replacing current social security/grant system like the Alaska Permanent Fund. Fundamental tax reform with the scrapping of VAT and income tax; replacing them with a land value tax ( in existence in 30 countries already)and the carbon tax.

  2. xix xix 21 April 2015

    I was with you right up until you blamed free flowing capital, low trade barriers and fluctuating exchange rates as cause for unequal/slow development. Economic development in South Africa, in particular, is severely held back by exactly that line of thinking. Don’t blame capitalism and its structures. South Africa really hasn’t yet tried true capitalism… ours is a crony socio-capitalist mixed economy.. while the socialists in South Africa are well meaning, sadly their policies are the root cause of our economic malaise.

  3. Karl-Heinz Sittlinger Karl-Heinz Sittlinger 21 April 2015

    Come now..This discussion must include tribalism and tribal royalty. It also needs to mention repetitive failure of the government, to the point that they sometimes incite xenophobia.
    So why are these not mentioned? Or do these not add to the understanding of why we are where we are?
    As long as we cannot admit to all factors contributing to this atrocity, as long as you keep on telling yourself that everyone else is at fault but yourself, it will happen again.

  4. Matt Black Matt Black 21 April 2015

    What a lovely piece.

    Some questions to OP:
    – ” Controversially, I would like to argue that townships and informal settlements should not exist” – I agree with this statement, but how would you house these people now in 2015? You will be met with resistance if you simply turn up and say “Hey people. You don’t live here any more. Get in the truck!”
    – “violence was concentrated in areas of stark deprivation aimed at accessible targets instead of the expected perpetrators of injustice.” While the current model of attacking those more vulnerable than oneself, having people who feel unjustly marginalised attack those with wealth and fortune (whites mostly) will not bring the attacker wealth any easier than attacking foreigners will.
    – “The global political economy is hostile to the kind of transformation envisaged in our Constitution” Well, the richest areas in the world have been built by focussing on capitalist economics, rather than socio-capitalist practices that we’ve seen in Western Europe (Greece, Spain, Italy…) and South Africa. If we tried pure capitalism, might that help?

  5. Masana Ndinga Masana Ndinga 21 April 2015

    Hi Matt, thanks for your contribution – much appreciated!

    1. I don’t think anyone has some clear cut answers but there are some interesting developments taking place in South Africa. Specifically, relocating RDP sites closer to places of work – something SA has done terribly since the end of apartheid. Those earning the least have to pay the most to get to work. In PE and Worcester, there have been attempts to relocate RDP sites in the centre of town, and while inconvenient for big property developers, it seems to be a step in the right direction.

    2. I agree completely… I cannot condone violence at all and in fact if there were to be an uprising of the poor against the rich, I fully acknowledge that despite being black I would be complicit in benefiting from a system of injustice – thus making me a correct target. But I do think that those of us with marginally more wealth have more power to influence and impact our political economy – even in small ways such as registering your helper for UIF, paying her a decent wage and understanding the impact of our relative wealth. I can say so much more about this, but I don’t think a comment does any justice!

    3. Well, the rules that govern liberal economics have shifted extensively in the last century. During Britain’s industrial revolution child labour was still acceptable, and in the US so was slavery. Environmental degradation was a secondary concern (if at all!). Ha-Joon Chang argues in ‘Kicking Away the Ladder’ that these made the cost of economic development significantly lower than we experience today when each of those things are unspeakable. It’s a different world we live in… and even the greatest economies are not purely liberal – each incorporate some aspects of social capital. I wish I had the answer to this question though
    :( do you have any ideas about what might work? I suspect that much of the change we are looking for will happen in the informal economy, where the majority of people find their livelihood. In Nigeria, the informal economy is also a site of manufacturing and small-scale industrialisation outside of the rigorous regulation of the formal economy. But in SA, because of the nature of our colonial experience, our informal economy is geared towards services and survival. How to shift that is worth exploring!

  6. Bert Bert 22 April 2015

    A very persuasive analysis, Masana, and not only do I agree with you that “The conditions that gave rise to violent and disruptive behaviour and marginalisation have barely shifted”, I would go even further than you do in pointing at the pertinence of economic conditions, specifically the capitalist economic model that the ANC opted for after 1994. It is an exclusivist, not an inclusivist, model, and hence those who look in helpless frustration at the wealthy in their German sedans, with no hope of ever sharing that (materialistic) lifestyle, but still desiring it, are prone to projecting their frustration on to what you call “false enemies”, whether they are people from other African countries or South Africans. Unless a more inclusivist economic model were to be implemented in SA, the slaughter will continue.
    Years ago I wrote a psychoanalytical interpretation of this violence, and I believe it is still as valid as nearly 8 years ago:

  7. Shingi Shingi 23 April 2015

    Did she blame though? O_o

  8. john madlener john madlener 27 April 2015

    We ll be talking about this topic for the next 200 years. If people can be violent and get away with it they will be violent. Every 5 years we read a new theory on South Africans and violence and yet the violence goes on unabated. Either these great theories on violence dont become effective policy and implementation or they dead wrong. I am sure like the author argues everything contributes. Maybe the main cause is wayward fathers and the vicious cycle that never seems to end when you bring life into this world and take zero responsibility. That is your culture how do you expect anyone to respect you when you fail so blatantly at your most important responsibility.

    The most recent case being the Alexander 4 who murdered the Mozambican, Not one of them has a father figure.

  9. xix xix 1 May 2015

    Yes. I would say so. “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”. Unemployment in SA is driven primarily by inflexible labour laws, rotten labour relations, poorly educated workforce, deep levels of mistrust btw government & business sectors, culture of crony capitalism and corruption, crowding out of the private sector, excessive taxation on value creators and a general unsupportive climate for entrepreneurial activity.

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