“Stop Killing Us!” South Africa's Plague of Masculine Violence

It is almost impossible to live in South Africa and be unaffected by prejudice; masculine violence in South Africa is a weaponization of this prejudice.

For the citizens of South Africa, the first week of September this year was a week in which we were forced to consider the many painful realities of South Africa. Like the fact that the society we live in is stained by violence, hatred, and prejudice. The first week of September saw Uyinene Mrwetyana , Jessie Hess and twelve other people lose their lives. These killings were all brought on by the same cause: South Africa’s plague of masculine violence.

Historically, the region known today as South Africa has featured great degrees of violence. At, and arguably even before the advent of colonialism, the South African reality was one that incapsulated constant domination from groups that were able to utilize violence to their advantage. The region was initially the site of ethnic violence due to the Zulu Wars and King Shaka’s attempt at expansion of the Zulu Kingdom. This was soon followed by slavery in the trading post of the Cape, and then settler colonialism which led to the violent system of governance known as Apartheid. Even now, in Post-Apartheid South Africa, the state has not shown restraint in exercising what it claims to be legitimate violence against poor black and coloured people, most notably in Marikana and most recently through the deployment of the South African National Defence Force to the Cape Flats.

Zimbabwean author, Tsitsi Dangarembga, talked about nervous conditions in the African context in her 2018 Mapungubwe Institute lecture. She noted that trauma is a condition that derives itself from the experience of violence. In response to centuries of violence, in Zimbabwe, citizens find themselves dealing with the effects of betrayal, shock, loss, grief, damaged self-esteem, self-doubt, and anger. This condition of trauma is something South Africans also experience.  Our ‘conditions’ as South Africans are defined by a lack of healing or tangible reparations and worsened by widespread poverty and inequality. The question then arises: how best do we deal with this trauma? In South Africa, the response to that question appears to be violence.

The task of imagining a South Africa that is not tainted with violence is something that many South Africans are unwilling to do. In the South African imagination, the idea that violence is something to be lauded is extremely prevalent. In response to the death of Uyinene Mrwetyana and countless others to the femicide crisis, a petition calling for the reinstatement of the death penalty for offenders found guilty of rape gained more than half a million signatures. Similarly, there have been many calls for the government to introduce a state of emergency. Although these cries come from people who genuinely see state-sanctioned violence as an appropriate way to deal with the scourge of criminal violence, those making the cries fail to acknowledge the reality of South African society. Indeed, violence that we deem legitimate cannot be removed from a larger society in which violence is the only way in which people can express their grievances. Justifying such violence allows us to feel heard in a society in which many feel otherwise powerless. However, we must acknowledge that violence is a dangerous language and has spread from the political to the personal. As a South African, I myself have agreed with the use of this violence at times in my life, during the ‘fees must fall’ movement and during the countless service delivery protests this country has experienced. I, among others, have believed that violence could be weaponized to respond to widespread government oppression and mismanagement. I no longer subscribe to this view.

The conversation around violence in the South African context cannot take place without referring to the writings of Frantz Fanon, the Martinican philosopher, who sees post-colonial violence as something that derives itself from colonial rule. According to Fanon, the colonial subject is dehumanized by colonialism to the extent that he loses his humanity. For the colonial subject, freeing themselves through violence becomes cathartic because the very experience of living in a society that is defined by oppression, repression, and lack is a violence in itself that is inflicted against the native. The use of violence is then supposed to create a shared understanding, some humanity between the subject and his oppressor. Ultimately, this argument legitimizes the use of physical violence as a response to ever-present psychological violence.

For the South African man, responsive violence is not directed at oppressors, or even representations of oppression, but rather at those in the society who have an equally intimate understanding of marginality as South African men do. After all, due to the system of patriarchy, cisgender heterosexual men will always be in control of violence. They, therefore, will always be the arbiters of how such violence gets distributed. In South Africa, we see men turning to violence to confront the state of trauma that we all live in.

Many South African women share the same disillusionment with the state, rising inequality, and the continued experience of marginality as men. In fact, many South African women share xenophobic and tribalist sentiments; however, compared to South African men, women are less likely to express their prejudice at those they see as less deserving of humanity through violence.

In The Act of Living, academic, Marco Di Nunzio, writes about the experience of marginality in Ethiopia with a focus on Addis Ababa. He discusses the failure of development in improving the trajectories of the two Ethiopian men. He makes a point, which can be easily overlooked in the book, about how these men’s response to dealing with their exclusion from the state recreates itself and allows them to feel a sense of belonging by joining groups that seek to monopolize the use of violence and crime. Similarly, South Africans must feel that this state of exclusion that they live in, that is sometimes shared and experienced in different ways, calls on them to attempt to own and use violence against anyone who does not belong to their group.

South African men continue to search for what it means to be a man in a society that no longer (and arguably has never) been one that they could control. Theirs is a society that includes men who laud themselves as ‘protectors’, ‘fathers’, and ‘brothers’ while using violence against those who most need that protection. In fact, one could go further and argue that South African men become transgressors that reproduce a society that necessitates this protection.

Thus, the search for the meaning of masculinity in post-apartheid South Africa proceeds. It manifests in consistent violence against LGBTIQ+ people, through harassment and, in the worst-case scenario, corrective rape. It is done by creating a society in which it is unsafe to exist as a woman; where women must face the threat of harassment and even death from anyone, from their intimate partners to the nefarious man hiding in the bathroom or the post office. The search for meaning is done by perpetuating hegemonic manhood that excludes men whose ethnicities do not allow themselves to be a part of the dominant manhood, such as the Tsonga and Venda. Lastly, it is done by the literal burning of foreign-owned businesses and a lack of regard for the lives of immigrants.

It is almost impossible to live in a country like South Africa and not be affected by prejudice; however, male South Africans consistently weaponize this prejudice. This weaponization does not have positive results for anyone including themselves, yet they continue to engage in it to find more nefarious ways to define their search for meaningful masculinity through violence. They desperately want to claim any and all spaces for themselves, where they can exert immeasurable violence at a whim. Thus, the reality of cat-calling and street harassment in cities all over our country is just another reproduction of this violence. It is consistent with the subjugation of anyone that does not belong to their group.

I do not think that saying that we have a crisis of masculinity even begins to encapsulate why this scourge of masculine violence exists. It plagues and permeates every aspect of our society. It causes most of us to live in fear and until it is dealt with, no amount of empty campaigns in which men apply red lipstick, wear high heels and doeks, and walk through our streets in some sort of twisted solidarity will rectify it. Even police officers and government officials are able to march against gender-based violence without auditing and improving their responses to the situation. The first week of September has shown that it is no longer possible to live with masculine violence, it has shown that it is actively killing us. It has shown that men in this society have real work to do on redefining their masculinity and even their humanity