Half The Man He Used To Be: Redefining the Role of Masculinity in South Africa

The following article first appeared on SarahHaas.com, 05 March 2017
By Sarah Haas and Jane Bodmer

As Nombulelo Alidacia Skeylie was driving home from a long day’s work as a nurse, she heard a “very upsetting” conversation on her local radio station in Johannesburg about male sterilization.

“Many women were calling in and saying they would prefer to get sterilized because ‘What if something goes wrong, I would rather be the one who has the tubes cut because they will cut the wrong tubes, and he will not be able to function sexually,’” Skeylie said.

Frustrated with the male-centric discourse, Skeylie unsuccessfully tried to call into the radio station. She realized she was listening to the prevailing views on masculinity in South Africa.

Skeylie’s epiphany speaks to a larger movement brewing in South Africa. Citizens, female and male, and young and old, are investigating what it means to be a man in their country. The common goal: deconstruct and reconstruct the concept of masculinity to reduce gender-based violence and move society forward.

“Unless we are able to have useful conversations with men to change their mindset, to change their outlook on life, we are not going to be able to deal with the challenges that we are facing,” said Bafana Khuamlo, director of Sonke Gender Justice, a nonprofit, nongovernmental organization that works to strengthen South Africa through the education of men and boys.

“A sizable number of relations are defined by what I call patriarchy and negative masculinities,” Khumalo said. “We need to, I would argue, de-educate men about what manhood is about. That manhood is not about violence, it’s not about using force, it’s not about forcing your ideas on others. Women are just as equal, just as good, just as powerful as men, and men have to learn that.”

Though South Africa has advanced in the political sector, and has one of the most progressive constitutions in the world, the dogma of masculinity and those “negative masculinities” still remains potent. When one’s “manhood” is challenged and he fails to fulfill his “manly” responsibilities, he can turn violent.

“We still live in a country that is very, very patriarchal. We have a beautiful constitution, that should make things possible, but most of the time you find the reality of the crime is very different,” said Phindi Malaza, programs coordinator at The Female Empowerment for Women, or FEW.

“For a lot of people the constitution is just a document because it’s beautiful, but it doesn’t translate into ground to make situation better,” Malaza said.

Mpho Mhlongo, 23, understands this quandary all too well. The mother of three found herself in an abusive relationship once her “baby-daddy” and live-in boyfriend became insecure of her career and supposed independence. As Mhlongo began to work as a house maid and earn a steady income, her boyfriend felt the need to abuse her physically, emotionally and financially to assert his position as a male, and her subordinate one as a woman.

“He abused me emotionally, financially, physically. He’s the drinking type. He started not coming home. If I ask him, ‘Why didn’t you come home?’ or ‘Why didn’t you buy food?’ stuff like that, basics, he would start hitting me and stuff,” Mhlongo said.

“If I’m working, he is starting to become jealous… So he will start hitting me. He doesn’t give me any more money. I must hustle or do something in order for my children to have food.”

Mhlongo’s tale is not uncommon in South Africa. Soul City Institute for Social Justice reports that 45.6 percent of South African women experience one or more episodes of gender-based violence in their lifetimes. Additionally, 78 percent of men in Gauteng, the province where Johannesburg is located, have admitted to committing some form of violence at least once in their lifetime. As exemplified by Mhlongo’s harrowing ordeal, the role of power is linked to this and other forms of gender-based violence.

To reduce such violence, Bafana Khumalo and Sonke Gender Justice converse with men and young boys through a series of workshops and events around the country. The objective: teach attendees, both male and female, that manhood does not translate to dominance, as is generally perpetuated in South African culture and society.

“I always remind men when we have our own workshops that women’s rights are human rights,” Khumalo said. “We cannot expect to have a country where we respect the dignity of everybody but disrespect women. That does not gel.”

Agisanang Domestic Abuse Prevention and Training, or ADAPT, also started a program in 1997 targeting men and perpetrators of gender-based and sexual violence. The program incorporates specific projects, including monthly support groups and annual conferences where attendees can discuss their experiences and feelings and provide each other with mutual support.

“We ask men, what’s your take on this? How do things affect you as a human being? As a father? And what is it that maybe we can do to help our government do the right thing?” said Peter Mbergeni, social worker and coordinator of the men’s program at ADAPT. “Bit by bit we’ll get there. It’s something that is happening, even if it is not that quick, but it is happening.”

Yet, the push to deconstruct and reconstruct the norms of masculinity does not just center upon the male population. Women are also being taught to overcome their passive compliance with patriarchal, misogynistic beliefs and behavior in order to empower themselves and their nation. Women of all races, ethnicities and socio-economic statuses tend to adhere to cliché gender roles and often dismiss gender-based violence and other behaviors as a male, “just being a man.”

“We need to recognize that the patriarchy isn’t just prolonged by men,” said Gail Smith, head of communications and outreach for the Mapungubwe Institute For Strategic Reflection, or MISTRA, a research institute that analyzes South Africa’s longterm problems. Smith also noted that South African women “have a lot to gain” if they sign with patriarchy. The more they accept and conform to patriarchy, the more they will fit into South African society and avoid harassment, judgement and isolation.

For some South Africans, the redefinition of masculinity is vital, as many in the nation struggle in an internal tug-of-war between customary and new ideologies.

“The idea today is based on wrong ideas about why one should be a man. Especially that we’re disconnected to our culture that used to be done, an initiation of a man,” said Bongani Zulu, a woodshop worker in Vosloorus, a township in the Ekurhuleni township 18 miles southeast of Johannesburg.

“So right now I’d say manhood in South Africa is very vulnerable. Very. Like to a 5 percent of 105. Yes, that’s how vulnerable it is.”

Phindi Malaza of the FEW organization agrees. Malaza says that starting at the community level is the only way to overturn the patriarchal system.

“Education is actually needed for the whole society so that when we talk, because…Perpetrators of rape come from communities. So the attitude has to change from those communities to teach men how to be better men. How to also respect the choices and rights of everyone in the society,” she said.

Still, the efforts being put forth by these determined individuals may not be enough in Johannesburg’s ancient and robust patriarchal system.

“We still have a lot of cultural values…we’ll call them values, traditions that we observe. I think we have a lot of [health] gaps we need to close…” said Skeylie. “Things are changing…they are, but I think the pace is too slow.”