Gender-based violence has been a trending topic once again. The common thread has been largely women suffering at the hands of men. Our women are not safe in South Africa. All the mainstream media coverage focusses on the victim. I want to take a look at the perpetrators who are mostly young black men. Whenever a story makes the headlines, talk revolves around broken men, how men need to change, frustration at the process of reporting abuse and the failure of convictions.
When convictions do occur, there is a lack of prohibitive punishment with the death penalty being considered. All these calls are focussing on dealing with the symptoms, ‘fixing’ these men. It’s my aim to explore the root cause of why we may have men dealing such violence towards our women. Women are left living in fear, injured both emotionally and physically or even dead.
Crime in South Africa targets both men and women and is also just as violent towards men. But for the purposes of this article, we are going to focus on the males perpetrating violence on females. No one is born violent. It’s a trait which we learn as we grow up.
How did South African men become so violent towards women and how has this kept on affecting younger generations. There is no one cause for this. We will look at some scenarios that can help explain how we got here.
Systems of emasculation
At the core of men’s violence is a deep sense of insecurity brought on by various factors. There are systems designed specifically to emasculate men. To strip them of all dignity, sense of worth and social value. The end goal being to separate men from the relationship they have with women. To pit the two sexes against each other, ultimately attacking and dismantling the family structure.
When men are stripped in this way they are ignored by society. They become desperate to prove their masculinity and that leads to them targeting the weak in our society. With this loss of dignity comes with it the violent acts as a manifestation of repressed emotions. The three systems I will look at are apartheid, education and feminism. These directly or indirectly contributed to the emasculation of South African men.
A phenomena in South Africa that played a critical role in the violent behaviour exhibited by young black men was the system of apartheid. Apartheid was a system of white supremacy which segregated the races from 1948 until around 1994.
This system separated men from their families. Men came into the cities for work, staying in single-sex hostels so they couldn’t bring their families. At work, they were treated inhumanely. Their white employers ‘baas’ demanded to be addressed as superiors. Grown men with families had to call the child of their employers (baas) as well. It was constantly instilled in them that they were of lesser values to whites.
These men were subjected to physical and verbal abuse without any recourse or the right to respond. The effect of this abuse was men losing their self-esteem and dignity resulting in them feeling emasculated. They had to internalise all this abuse as they could not fight back. Fighting back would lead to more abuse, arrest or even death. How they were treated by their repressive white employers is how they felt all people with power behaved. This response to any conflict be it of ideas or otherwise was violence.
When they had the opportunity to go back home to visit their families they would have a lot of pent up anger and frustrations. They would take out these pent up emotions on their wives and kids. With not much time to bond, they would have had to leave for work again and this cycle continued. As time went by the men would engage with women in the cities whilst they had families back home. These girlfriends despite performing the duties of a wife were never accorded the same value and worth. Then men went back home less frequently until they stopped going altogether.
School is not just about getting grades, it plays an instrumental role in socialising boys. The education system is neglecting boys in systematic ways as it becomes feminised. It’s happening through a drive to make boys ‘less’ masculine by stigmatising normal boy behaviour as toxic.
Sport is an integral part of the socialising of boys, especially team sports. Team sports force you to work together towards a common goal with other boys you may not even talk to during normal school or outside of school. It helps you to embrace diversity and to know your peers even better.
Participating in sport keeps boys active and instils discipline and a sense of purpose. It offers an avenue to express their competitive nature in a healthy environment. By depriving boys of sporting activities they miss out on this socialising and perpetuates the ills that come with idleness. They have no respect for their other peers either.
Sport instils discipline in boys. I posit that the lack of corporal punishment in schools and its abolition in the home has played a huge role in producing boys who have no discipline. Who have no understanding of the consequences for their actions, therefore do not take responsibility for such actions. Leaving the state as the last firm hand in disciplining these boys. This is not ideal, by then it’s too late for the boys and for society.
The errant and disrespectful behaviour by the boys towards authority in schools informs their attitudes towards authority even after school. Armed with ‘rights’ and emboldened by a disciplinary system that is sluggish and does not punish serious offences with appropriate punishment.
The education system is structurally set up to repress boys hence neglects its socialising role of these young men. The lack of male teachers also affects the development of boys in school. Boys do better when they are taught by men. Boys transitioning into manhood with the notion that actions have no consequences will become uncontrollable. Even the prospect of prison will not be a deterrent.
A brand of toxic feminism, which seems far removed from seeking equal rights for all is partly responsible for creating these angry young men. A strain of feminism that seeks to separate men from women to divide them. To have them fight each other instead of being together and working together. Feminism aims to break up the family unit by pitting men against women. Single motherhood has been normalised and is celebrated and its effects on boys is ignored.
Current divorce laws actually incentivise women to create fatherless homes. Laws make it very difficult for fathers to be in their children lives. Any expression of masculine traits is discouraged and labelled as undesirable and toxic. Boys are being feminised and encouraged to repress any impulses and expressions of masculinity. This is not natural for the boys.
Though apartheid as government policy has been banished. But socially the pillars are still intact and are still enforcing the underlying ideology of separation. The same ideology of separation is part of our education system and also enshrined in feminism. All three systems are achieving their primary objective of emasculating men which leads to dysfunctional families.
The men worked in the cities started new families with their girlfriends. This meant that the abandoned family at home was left fatherless with no male presence in the home. The girlfriend who was not considered a wife but had all the attributes bore these men-children. The children saw their mother fulfilling all the roles of wife, but not accorded the respect and title of such. Hence we see a family of three with the eldest son being thirty-five but the father and mother still refer to each other as boyfriend and girlfriend. The boys in this home observe the way their father treats their mother.
Meanwhile, the family back home was left fatherless, no male role model. The only image of a father the boy had was the angry, frustrated husband who came and beat up his mother and him too. Over time he would see his mother constantly speaking negatively about him. Either because of the way he treated or for not financially supporting the family.
Today men are over-committed to their careers such that they have very little to no time with their family. Therefore they cannot build the necessary emotional and physical bonds with the wife or with the children. The vast numbers of out of wedlock births mean boys are growing up without fathers.
Children with involved fathers have stronger cognitive and motor skills, elevated physical and mental health, become better problem solvers, and are more confident curious and empatheticMarilyn York, 2020
As much as a single mother may raise their child and provide for them materially, without a man, that void of a male presence and the role he plays in the emotional psychological development of a child will always be lacking. The boys grew up without learning the social skills of being a man and a father. Society has normalised single motherhood and casual relationships. A man and women call each other boyfriend and girlfriend. Yet they have 3 children together, they treat their relationship very casually.
The message the boys get from this is that there is no difference between a girlfriend and wife. Once again devaluing the importance of marriage and family. If it’s just a girlfriend then you can leave her with no consequence even if she has children. Seeing their mothers treated as girlfriends also impacts on their view towards women.
Boys are growing up fatherless in a fatherless society. The choices that they’re going to make in regards to violence towards women will be informed by their negative experiences.
The Role of women?
As the physically weaker sex, women are less likely to attack men physically. Their attack is more emotional and through sharp words. Their violence is usually aimed at undermining a man’s ego. A man who already feels emasculated responds physically and most likely than not violently. As he tries to maintain a semblance of control and nurse his bruised ego.
In cases of infidelity men also feel emasculated and men react at this attack to their ego. Releasing pent up emotions, they react in a violent way. That’s how they have been socialised to respond to conflict.
One aspect that is rarely discussed is the way women applaud violence. This is evident in their participation in violent protests, necklacing, xenophobic attacks and community mob justice. Normally its young men at the forefront of such violent demonstrations. Children also participate and observe these actions without any censoring from mothers. Their silence in such acts of violence makes them complicit in normalising violent conflict resolution.
Then men spurred by this endorsement commit atrocities. Sadly in the absence of these ‘soft’ targets, the men cannot just switch off this violent demeanour to dealing with other people, they turn on the very women who applauded them cos that’s how they know how to deal with conflicts.
South Africa is the most unequal country in the world. The gap between the rich and the poor is outrageous. This disparity of wealth distribution is a source of ire among young men who are the most impacted by this. In comparison to Africa, the country has a robust economy. However, citizens have a tough time finding decent jobs and enjoying a decent standard of living.
Lack of employment leads to frustration and anxiety and leaves a generation of uneasy insecure men. They take out these frustrations on black foreigners accusing them of taking their jobs.
Associated with this is the accusation that black foreigners are taking their women. Women are once again complicit in not denouncing this rhetoric because the targets are black foreigners. The real target of these angry men are the weakest group to vent out their frustrations and insecurities. They cannot target government which sets policy. Neither can they direct their anger at the whites who still hold the economic power and create this chasm between the rich and the poor. So they target the weakest, which is first the foreigners and no guesses who is next?
When they are done with black foreigners or in the absence of black foreigners they will target black women and the girl child. Systematically government policy has also added fire to this by marginalising young men through women first employment policies.
The objectification and sexualization of girls in the media is linked to violence against women and girls worldwide. Movies, music, social media and mainstream media is telling us that a woman is an object to be used for man’s pleasure. According to the narrative propagated by the mainstream media, women are objects whose sole existence is for men to act out their sexual desires. Objects to be traded on a sexual marketplace.
The women themselves also cash in on this and willingly participate in this marketplace, treating their own bodies as commodities to be traded on a sexual market, mostly for the pleasure of men. So long as they are getting paid for it and it affords them a life of luxury.
The result of this objectification is that boys are raised up viewing this representation of women in the media and in turn view them as objects, and treat them as such. This consensual objectification of women in the mainstream media spills over and affects even those who do not objectify themselves.
Yes, the choice is yours to do as you will with your body but the reality is that it has repercussions which are far-reaching beyond the one body. The wide accessibility of pornography has been instrumental in how women are used as objects.
Objectification normalises dangerous attitudes and leads men to be entitled to women’s bodies. I used to see men in Central Johannesburg just pulling, tugging and stroking women who were walking by. Even in supermarkets you see merchandisers in the aisles flirting and being too touchy-feely. I found it abnormal and something I couldn’t relate to. It seemed everyone else just accepted this as the norm. The men seemed to be entitled in all instances.
This entitlement also manifests in statements like “they are taking our women” as if women do not have agency. This entitlement leads to men treating women like property. The liberation of the sexual marketplace means women have the freedom to do as they please with their bodies so long as there is consent.
The ideas of sexualisation are being instilled in much younger girls. Walk through a clothing retail shop in the kiddies section and you can see sexually suggestive imagery on their clothes. Young boys are also exposed to this objectification at earlier ages through music videos and games. They are transitioning into adulthood with a warped sense of entitlement to women’s bodies. Women’s bodies have been normalised as objects for their sexual pleasure.
The government is not going to help us. The justice system is too slow, and depending on how powerful the perpetrators are some cases will never make it to court or victims are fatigued by the court battles till they just give up. The solution lies in our hands as a society we have to address this at the very roots. These criminals don’t just wake up and they are 23 years old and committing crimes. They are coming from communities and homes and that’s where we need to effect change.
Hashtagism (Short term)
Hashtags only serve to raise awareness for a middle-class audience for a short period of time. Hashtagism makes participants feel content with just showing outrage online. Sharing this outrage while changing profile pictures to show solidarity as long as a story is in the news cycle. The average ‘big’ news story only lasts approximately seven days before the world moves on. It’s not enough. After you have shared your hashtags with the accompanying angry face emoji then what? So if no impact is made within that first 7 days it’s forgotten.
Hashtags also lead to other reactionary hashtags because of their generality, for example, #MenareTrash resulted in #NotAllMen. Other hashtags include #AmINext #Patriachy #MeToo #MGTOW #ToxicMasculinity #MensRightsMovement #Feminism #WomenAgainstFeminism. They are all seeking to redress certain imbalances. They only result in a bigger rift between men and women because of the generalisations and often extremist positions they degenerate into. We need to change our language and how we engage with each other in addressing these social ills.
The only focus on men as perpetrators is about how they should be punished and sentenced as a corrective measure. Punishment through the legal system or mob justice may bring some semblance of justice or closure for the immediate victims. It does not, however, address the root problem. One perpetrator killed or incarcerated is replaced by a countrywide stream of boys leaving high school becoming men with the same attitude. Will tougher sentences or even the death sentence be the solution or a deterrent? The stories we hear daily suggest otherwise.
Funding around gender abuse focuses on women and children as victims. No funding is directed towards men and boys as a restorative or preventative measure. You wonder sometimes if there really is an effort to rectify the situation. The status quo probably suits the narratives of those in power or even determines the existence of some of these aid organisations on the forefront of the protection of women and girls.
The Family (Long Term)
At the foundation of the solutions towards femicide is the maintaining of the original family structure. Where children are raised by a father and mother under the same roof. When we raise our children we are preparing them to impact society in a positive way. It is under this set up that children are taught the necessary values to help them relate to other humans in a diverse society. We need to be intentional in how we raise our children and provide homes that are a sanctuary for them.
At the centre of these functional families is a deep fear of God who created us in his image. When we look at each other and see God’s image we will not violate each other but treat each other with the love and respect that we deserve. We will value life and seek to preserve it at all costs.
Fathers are vital in a child’s development. Fathers have a God-given responsibility to lead families. To set an example of how a man treats a woman and how a man behaves. They need to take responsibility for raising children they have borne. Fathers may say many things to their children but it’s their presence and their actions that are going to have a lasting impact on them. How they treat their wives will inform the boys how they will treat women in the future. Where fathers are absent society needs to intervene and assist in providing father figures because it’s in societies benefit.
However, today with the focus on self and rights of the individual society has been rendered helpless in bring up boys as a communal responsibility. They just fold their hands and watch and we are suffering the consequences of such actions. So the responsibility solely with us and the future we want for our children and grandchildren. We need to roll our sleeves and do the heavy work of keeping families together in raising boys that will respect human life.
The above is my view of why men are so violent towards women and girls in South Africa and this continues over the generations because there is no concerted effort to break this cycle. I am heavily invested in this because I have a wife and we are raising three girls and a son. So the issue of femicide in South Africa is something that is close to my heart. We’re cognizant of the dangers are children are exposed to each time they leave the house! It is important to have difficult conversations which include the voice of the perpetrators to have an understanding of how they have become like this. It could offer solutions to rectify and to also help with the restoration of such perpetrators.
Violence against men is undermined, under-reported, under-discussed, under-acknowledged, under-documented. Men don’t report because of the stigma associated and they internalise all this hurt. Boys who hurting, hurt other people. How do you think men deal with this? How do you think these effects manifest? Let us be proactive in advocating for the maintenance of the family. Normalising raising children in homes with fathers who fear God and provide guidance and leadership is essential.