Chandre Gould & Anthony Collins, Business Day, 19 September 2013
THERE are two
important factors that appear to be linked to increases in violent
crime: increases in relative poverty and high unemployment. While a
small proportion of very wealthy South Africans are getting even
richer, the cost of living has outstripped increases in social
grants, pensions and salaries in most sectors. Based on these factors
alone, we can expect violent crime to remain high for the foreseeable
It may be
tempting to think that there is a simple relationship between crime,
unemployment and inequality, but that is not the case. As a series of
articles in The Economist recently showed, increases in income
disparity in developed countries have been accompanied by decreases
in violent crime. The problem for South Africa lies in the toxic mix
of factors that aggravate the effect of inequality and unemployment.
These include an aspirational and consumerist culture, gender
inequality and violence at all levels of society.
society, those who engage in public displays of material wealth are
regarded as role models and heroes. Success and material wealth are
regarded as synonymous. Yet social mobility is constrained by the
contraction of the economy and the mismatch between the skills being
taught at schools and higher education institutions, and the needs of
the job market. What this means for many young people is that
achieving social status by accumulating wealth is difficult, which is
bad for their self-esteem.
self-esteem is amplified by deeply entrenched ideas that men and
women should have different roles and social statuses. "Real"
men are expected to be material providers; to be strong, successful,
brave and to "protect" women. This affects the way our
society raises children. As it becomes harder for more young men to
meet the requirements of being a "real" man by having a job
and achieving upward economic mobility, they tend to fall back on the
other main way of expressing and establishing their masculinity —
by using physical strength and aggression to gain respect and assert
authority. Thus the risk increases that they will turn to violence.
able to find a job, provide for yourself or your family, or secure
the associated social status in the face of the increasing
conspicuous wealth of others creates a sense of personal failure that
undermines self-esteem and dignity. If there is no way to regain that
sense of self-worth through means other than violence or aggression,
the consequences are obvious. Loss of dignity and a sense of
worthlessness become triggers for violence.
While not all
economically margin-alised men will resort to violence, and
relatively few do, we increase the chance of violent responses to
adversity by maintaining social beliefs that men should be strong,
aggressive and dominating.
of caring and nurturing role models for men increases their risks of
resorting to criminal violence. This also applies to men in better
economic positions who, while facing less extreme economic stresses,
are still caught in a never-ending struggle to establish their
masculinity and status as providers in a competitive consumer
Over the past
year, we have interviewed men serving long prison sentences for
serious violent crimes, including robbery, rape, murder and
hijacking. As children, most of them had already witnessed and
experienced much more violence than they ended up committing
themselves. They were the victims of violent fathers, mothers and
One of the
reasons for this is the harmful belief that, as children, they could
be disciplined and taught to respect adults only though physical
beatings. But these beatings taught them that violence is an
acceptable way to solve problems. At the same time, these beatings
left them feeling worthless, unloved, shamed and disrespected, making
it more difficult to achieve a positive sense of self later.
This is not
to excuse the terrible crimes they committed, but it does tell us
that if we hope to reduce violence in our society, we cannot rely on
the criminal justice system alone. We have to address the social
factors that increase the likelihood of violence.
views and beliefs that entrench violence would require us to
challenge harmful traditions, cultural practices and ways of
assessing success. Unless and until we do, we can expect to face high
levels of violence and crime.