A History of Violence

This is the second in a 3 part series of posts on sexual violence against women, focuses on the campaign strategies of groups led by men who fight gender-based violence.

South African Police Service

South African Police Service Commemoration Day, Pretoria. Credit GovernmentZA via Flickr CC BY-ND 2.0.

While South African men seem to increasingly realize that it is their responsibility to do something about the endemic levels of violence against girls and women, the resulting initiatives have often taken the form of symbolic gestures, such as marches and protests. A telling example is “The Real Men March,” organized by the conservative Christian Family Policy Institute, which was held a while ago, on April 16th. Carrying angry banners, about 2,000 men protested against rape by marching the streets of Cape Town.

De-normalizing rape and sexual harassment is a crucial step in making the country safer for girls and women. But that doesn’t mean that all steps taken in the name of men are necessarily well-guided. And in the case of the Real Men, their banners suggest that their strategy might not be of the most effective kind. Worse, they might inflict more harm than good.

Why? For starters, their calls to end violence against “our women and children” and to “be strong, be men” do little for the deconstruction of the rigid gender-roles that lie at the heart of the problem. Moreover, their appeals for “men of courage” to “respect your wives” raises the impression that not all ‘Real Men’ were too concerned about the often excessively brutal and even fatal rapes that lesbians in the country face. Undoubtedly largely well-intentioned, the march attested to the complexity of masculinities in South Africa and revealed how deeply ingrained and hetero-normative the notion of women as property remains today.

In order to understand how ideas of women as property relate to the misogynist violence that molest women and girls today, we have to look at the nation’s history of violence and try to understand how this has shaped and bred the masculinities that underlie both the violence as well as (misguided) protection efforts. Realizing that, historically, South Africa has produced enough institutionalized violence to fill a proper number of volumes per decennium, we will only lift out a few broad (but influential) trends.

As we know, the seeds of the nation’s violence were sown throughout the past centuries; from pre-colonial times, slavery and colonialism to apartheid and the resistance struggles. Apartheid, which as we all know ended in 1994, was a particularly brutal episode, and subjected many black South Africans to horrifying levels of state violence and humiliations. Resistance movements, such as the Africa National Congress (ANC), trained black men to use violence as a noble cause for liberation. Meanwhile, white boys and men were trained to coercively, militantly and violently maintain white domination.

Although located at the other end of the power spectrum, white and black men were exposed to excessive levels of violence. In addition to the daily brutalities, the white apartheid government introduced the Group Areas Act in 1950. This act forced coloured and African South Africans to move from their homes into racially segregated areas, outside the cities. These new and unsafe areas were particularly challenging in terms of social control and new social norms, which in some areas fuelled gang activity.

Forcibly turned into low-wage laborers under colonial and apartheid capitalism and mandated to live in overcrowded townships, existing black masculinities changed along the lines of labor. Today, as an outsider, you can still come across a thirty year old white “boss” that refers to his fifty year old black employee as a “boy”, alluding to the level of humiliations black men underwent and still endure from the apartheid workplace. The ruling class consisted mainly of Afrikaans speaking white men. Dr. Robert Morrell, whose research for the University of Cape Town focuses on issues of masculinity, describes the masculinities of this group of Afrikaans men as (having been) shaped by “puritan protestant austerity and strictness” and being “authoritarian, unforgiving and apologetic. For those white men of British descent, ‘imperial masculinities’, which glorified violence in the context of combat, the normalization of corporal punishment and the perceived need to protect their families from black men had been influential in their conception of manhood and growing ‘macho values’ over the decades. Moreover, white fears of ‘Black Peril’ (the imagined black sexual thirst for white women’s flesh) had instilled a deep ‘protector’ masculinity in many white settlers men.

Fast forwarding to 2013, as divided South African men may be by race and class, two things they have in common is the patriarchal dividend and their responsibility for the violence in their communities. Men urging other men to keep their “hands off our women” are indicative of how deeply ingrained the notion of women as property remains across all divides. In a severely counterproductive way, those men who so loudly insist on protecting “their women”, invoke the very same masculine norms that (shaped by the nation’s violent history) are at the heart of the violence today.

This does not, however, mean that all men adhere to exactly the same masculine ideals. On the contrary, masculinities in South Africa are complex; their nuances will still differ across communities. Rural Xhosa masculinities, for example, will be different from that of coloured urban boys. Zulu masculinity models itself around different heroes than white capitalist masculinities and the identities of those who grow up in gang ridden areas take shape differently from that of an Afrikaner farm boy outside Stellenbosch. The nuances of masculinities will therefore differ, no doubt. But the dominant ideas around toughness, male superiority and ‘women as possessions’ that fuel the rapes, murders, harassments and terror of women transcend these divisions. The unfortunate irony of invoking ‘protector masculinities’ to tackle the violence reveals the many levels on which these transformations need to happen. For those men who take their responsibility seriously, a task much larger than marching is waiting for them to take on.

Understanding what does not work, however, does not answer the question ‘what can men do?’ But there are NGOs who made it their daily business to figure this out. In the final post in this series I will post these and other questions to representatives of the Sonke Gender Justice, an NGO that “supports men and boys in taking action to promote gender equality, prevent domestic and sexual violence, and reduce the spread and impact of HIV and AIDS.”

Further Reading

Child of Mau Mau

Ethnicity did not simply disappear in Kenya’s 2022 elections. Instead, it was a crucible where both sides mobilized historical claims and ideas to win supporters, in ways that could, at times, elude the eye.

Reading List: Mutt_Lon

The books that the author, a Cameroonian novelist, has been reading share an ethics of political engagement, a quest for identity and cultural inventory, and an ear for the voices and harmonies of African languages.