A new study, reported on yesterday by the M&G, looks at the nature of violent crime in South Africa. Although the report attributes our high levels of violence to a number of factors, the core problem being a “subculture of violence and criminality”, it seems to have missed what I would argue is the most obvious factor in South Africa’s violence.
If one looks at who is most likely to use violence, you’ll find it is men. Sure, men are also the ones most likely to be on the receiving end of that violence, but the point is that in South Africa, violence most often originates with men. Surely then, when accounting for violence, we need an explanation that takes this into account. We need an explanation that focuses on the link between men and the use of violence.
For example the report argues that one of the factors that contribute to violent crime is poor child rearing and youth socialisation. Gender neutral explanations such as this create the impression that both boys and girls, or men and women, are equally to blame for violence in South Africa. But this isn’t the case. Violence has something to do with the way boys and men are being socialised. It has something to do with what we are teaching our young men, and how they are brought up — in short it has to do with notions of masculinity and manhood.
Another explanation offered by the report focuses on inequality, poverty and unemployment. But again such an explanation means very little when isolated from the fact that men are the perpetrators of violence. What is it about poverty or marginalisation that makes someone not just rob or steal, but first rape and bludgeon? And why is it that poverty and inequality drive more men than women to acts of violence? I would argue that it’s only when we look at this explanation through the lens of masculinity, that we get a better picture.
Keeping it simple, let’s say that manliness in South Africa is about being a provider, being strong, and being respected. Being a man means not being like a woman. So then, being poor and unable to provide may result in feelings of frustration and emasculation, a sense of not being man enough — and it’s these feelings that contribute to violence; the violence being a means of reasserting one’s masculinity. It’s with this in the back of our minds, that using poverty and inequality to account for violence seems a lot more plausible.
Antony Altbeker, one of the report’s authors, argues that levels of employment “can make a difference in the high levels of interpersonal violence and of violence more generally”. Now, again, though unemployment may go some way in accounting for violence, it cannot fully explain its existence. But I would bet my very last dollar that the number of unemployed men who use violence is ridiculously higher than the number of unemployed women. And if that is the case, then it needs to form part of our explanation: we need to look at why unemployed men are resorting to violence so much more frequently than unemployed women. And I’d argue that that question brings us right back to the feelings of emasculation that men associate with being unemployed.
When I saw that this study had been released I was hoping for something new and exciting, perhaps a new explanation for violence in South Africa. Instead we got the same old text-book account of violence — nothing like an actual explanation. And because the report misses the point of South Africa’s violence, so do the solutions it offers.
If you ask me, tackling violence starts with a discussion on masculinity in South Africa. Yes, as the report says, socialisation is an important part acting on violence, but it’s the socialisation of young boys and men that is crucial. The bottom line is that our traditional ideas of what it means to be a man in South Africa are unrealistic in the current context. Unemployment, poverty and inequality are a part of daily life for many men, and so patriarchal ideas of masculinity are bound to create frustration and desperation.