Our men and boys need help – and fast

  • Mbuyiselo Botha
  • Kopano Ratele

During the celebration of the 21st anniversary of our democracy last week, President Jacob Zuma acknowledged that the violence in our society points to the need for psychological help.

Zuma said: “Apartheid was a violent system and it produced violent countermeasures to it. So people still believe that to fight authority you must fight government … even now, when it is your own government. We need to be helped as a society.”

Zuma must be congratulated for this acknowledgment. And while there may be criticism, as is usually the case when he mentions apartheid, it is vital not to let apartheid off the hook. Those who actively supported the system and those who benefited from it should take responsibility for the trauma we continue to experience in our society.

Apartheid was not merely benign segregation; it was horrible disfiguring violence that reduced some to subhumans. People were bombed, hanged, shot, jailed and injured. Violence was an everyday occurrence.

That violence has been transmitted from parents to children. What has not helped is that the post-apartheid government has not focused on removing this violence of apartheid from our lives and psyches.

The remains of apartheid run deep in SA today. The shacks you see are due to influx control and the fact that people were for decades denied housing in white SA. The squalor you see in Alexandra or Nyanga emerged out of the super-exploitation that apartheid capitalism engendered. This in itself is structural violence.

The violence of apartheid and the violent methods of resistance to which Zuma referred have been with us for a long time.

Violence was prevalent, too, within the Mass Democratic Movement, used against those who were seen as undermining the struggle.

The most horrific method used to teach lessons to those who were regarded as apartheid collaborators was the necklace.

We should have been aware that these methods were breeding a dehumanising culture in which human dignity and natural rights were trampled upon, victimising those at the receiving end and those doing the victimisation.

There seems to have been little recognition of the connection between men’s violence against women, children and other men, and the historical violence of apartheid and the anti-apartheid struggle. It is not too late to recognise that we come from a violent history and we are in need of help. Most of us share this view.

The question is what are Zuma and the government going to do? Singling out the government and its leaders does not imply the private sector, professional associations, nongovernmental organisations, other political parties and the rest of society do not have the responsibility to address violence.

From the images we have seen in the media, it is obvious that most of the perpetrators of violence are men. Studies in SA, as well as from other parts of the world, confirm this fact — men are disproportionately involved in the perpetration of violence. We need to work with boys at an early age, as well as men, if we are going to prevent and reduce violence in our communities and society.

Programmes to tackle violence will not be as effective as they could be if they are restricted to a few days or a month in the year and implicitly target only women and girls.

This does not mean interventions such as the 16 Days of Activism No Violence against Women or Women’s Month in August are unnecessary. It means we need more days, more programmes, and a year-round suite of interventions against violence and towards changing the dominant violent psychologies. We also need programmes that target boys and men in order to change the nature of their masculinity.