Thursday, September 20, 2007

Why is South Africa such a violent country?

This is a pressing question that is often explained away by pointing to the socio-economic and political upheaval that lies just beneath the surface of South African society.

Still, it is a vexing question. An unavoidable one. And, there are no easy and readily available answers. In fact, even attempting to answer this question is a hazardous endeavor.

Nonetheless, there is no other option but to look deep into the quagmire that is our post-apartheid reality and stare down some answers. And while we are staring, it would be wise to recognize the weight of the apartheid past, but it would also be wise not to use that past as a scapegoat.

I want to be clear about what I am saying. I am not attempting a conservative analysis that blames victims or victimizes Blacks. My name is not Thomas Sowell or Shelby Steele by any stretch of the imagination.

I recognize how white racism has indelibly stained our lives.

But white racists do not put guns and knives into the hands of school children who kill teachers and students in class. Many of these kids were born after the end of apartheid.

White racism also does not force a Black principle to rape students entrusted into his care. It also does not force him to abuse female teachers who are seeking to be promoted.

These kinds of abuses happen elsewhere for sure. But in South Africa the frequency of incidents cannot just be explained away by randomness.

We are a horrifically violent country.

During the month of February I casually counted no less than eight reported incidents where a student seriously assaulted a teacher. In one instance, a student walked into a class and repeatedly stabbed a female teacher until she died. In another, students ganged up on a male teacher on his first day teaching and killed him as he was about to leave the school premises.

This they did in full view of other students and school officials.

The Mail and Guardian reports that the Gauteng African National Congress's (ANC) education sub-committee believes that “the growing number of violent incidents in schools stems from problems within society and parents being too lenient …”

I want to dismiss the assessment of leniency. Leniency is an old and useless blaming strategy used by all in South African society. It is somewhat of a Calvinist hangup about discipline and order.

When I was in school we would be caned by male and female teachers almost everyday. I started to wonder whether caning was a perk of the teaching profession. Caning was said to counter lax or bad parenting and the recklessness of youth.


As a social scientist I am wondering what this ANC sub-committee means by the “problems in society”. I want to know why South Africa cannot live beyond the violence that has always characterized us.

Racism is too easy an answer. And poverty too.

There are other African nation-states that have suffered racism akin to apartheid. Namibia, for example. There are other African nation-states that are poorer than us. Malawi, for example.

And neither in Namibia nor Malawi will you find the kind of debasing violence that we have in South Africa.

In fact, I used to travel long distances in Namibia in the early to mid-nineties. Right after we achieved our ‘liberation’ in South Africa, and never, not once, did I encounter an incident that even remotely threatened my person.


I was asked this same question by an Ethiopian academic in Washington D.C. once. We were sitting around celebrating the completion of my doctorate when he blurted out to me:”Why are you South Africans so violent to one another?”

I was startled by his bluntness. And I answered after regaining my composure:”Because we have been ravaged by white racism for too many years”

“Rubbish” he replied. “We have suffered alongside South Africa and there are countries that have suffered more intense oppression yet do not kill like South Africans” he continued.

"Your answer does not fit the question … it is a knee-jerk reaction to an issue that is more than just what the white man did to your people” he concluded.

This conversation took place in 1996. It is 11 years later and I could not answer anymore than the reflex of blaming our endemic violence on racism.

He was right then, and he would be right now. I was making an excuse that can’t just explain the violence of our present condition.

We know everything about racism now, perhaps too much.

But we still don’t know why we wake up each day only to massacre one-another like it is a routine part of life. And, when we do, there is not a white man or woman compelling any of us to murder anyone.

But still we do.


***Update (September 21)
News24 reports that Safety and Security Minister, Charles Nqakula, said a "barrier" to fighting crime in South Africa is a "lack of a sense of shared identity among ... various cultural groups"

He added that South Africans needed to be more like the Irish and even the Americans. Both these nations are patriotic. The Irish show their patriotic fervor at rugby games. The Americans, well they are united around the "American Dream".

So, if we were like them there would be more of a "consensus" on fighting crime.

Is this man serious?

In 2006 Nqakula admonished whites who complained about crime and told them to immigrate.

Was he serious then too?

Fighting crime and addressing the unacceptable levels of violence has nothing to do with cultures (he must mean races), rainbowism, patriotism, or any other excuse.

Get real Minister.


Anonymous said...

This is a question that I've asked many times. Although I don't dwell on politics too much, being the not so white shade of black, we were forced to ponder our blackness and forced to give thought as to whether we were actually human or not.

I think that I was about 5 years old and my first memory of a white man was a council supervisor whipping a group of black workers. I asked my mum why he was doing that. I still remember the helplessness in her eyes as my protector and all knowing nurturer had nothing but an awkward silence to answer my question.
I believe that part of the violence that pervades the South African society is a product of the “might is right” mentality. We experienced first hand how violence solved many of the problems.

If you needed some land….ship the people off to another place – if they resisted or were a little slow for your liking….whip them and shoot them if necessary (even if not necessary).
If someone said something you didn’t like…….beat the crap out of them, and if you felt like it, throw them out of a 7th story window.
If an employee didn’t do his/her work properly…..beat the crap out of them, shoot them if you felt the need.
If people spoke out against your policies……beat the crap out of them and send them to prison for most of their life.

When something has been done for a long enough time, then it almost becomes normal. When I was a kid, it was quite normal to know gangsters. Some of whom had stabbed people and in some cases, killed people. One survival technique was to make sure that you were friendly with them. It shames me to say that at some stage in my young life, I looked up to some of these people. I am eternally grateful that a mixture of common sense and my mother insisting that I stay in school, helped me to steer clear of this path. It would have been easy to transition into that life. Anyway, what I’m thinking is that after generations of violent rule, it becomes a natural choice:
When you want to take something – take it violently… makes things easier.

Ah well – what do I know anyway? I should stick to bikes.


Ridwan said...

Tony you are right broer and I am moved by your words here.

We are a horrifically violent people. All of us, all races.

The "I'll donner you" mentality has not eased.

In fact, we are violent in the way we talk.

"I'll clap you" is heard as often as "good morning" or "good night".

We seem to think that violence solves issues but also that it is a way to get stuff.

A big part of the architecture of violence is the disrespect and arrogance that is so uniquely South African.

I mean go and read News24 and see how folks write in and debate things as mundane as cars.

Comments are raw and rude and ridicule people, often cruelly.


Why are we such a narrow minded bigoted and violent people.

I agree that it is because we were so created. Violence is the backbone of South Africa from its inception.

And this is why we are such a fragile country.

Thanks for taking this post serious broer.

We need to ask these questions and we need to ask them without the crap about reconciliation and forgiveness and all the other political expediencies we know so well now.

Peace Tony!