Why is South Africa so violent? Because violence is cheap, it’s easy and it works

When the time came to march, Siphiwo grabbed one thing before he left his home in the impoverished community near the Lonmin platinum mine in Marikana.

His weapon.

The piece in question was a knobkerrie, a long stick. It’s a traditional marker of manhood in South African cultures, including Siphiwo’s own Xhosa group.

“It’s used to protest,” said Siphiwo. “It’s not violent. It’s a symbol.”

Siphiwo asked that his surname not be used. But he didn’t mince words about what happened next on the afternoon of August 16: he and his friends clutched their sticks powerlessly as police unleashed a barrage of semi-automatic fire, killing 34 protesters.

“They did not help,” he said of the sticks and spears he and his colleagues held. “They shot us with rifles.”

At 25, Siphiwo is too young to have been part of the violent struggles against South Africa’s apartheid government. But it’s clear that that legacy lives in him and his young friends, who are citizens of one of the world’s most violent nations.

The Marikana Commission

Violence, either outright or implied — like the sticks and spears carried in nearly every protest — is everywhere in this nation of 50 million people. And as the nation approaches two decades of freedom from apartheid, violence has come to distinguish South Africa.

About 50 people are murdered each day. A shocking one in four men admitted to committing rape — and half of those men said they’d done it more than once.

Why is violence so pervasive in South Africa?

It’s one of the many questions that the Marikana Commission of Inquiry will try to answer in upcoming months as it studies the acts that led to more than 44 deaths in those six weeks of violent mine strikes.

The Centre for the Study of Violence and Reconciliation devoted years to studying this seemingly simple question. And after exhaustive research, in 2010 they came up with a 66-page study that can be summarised thusly: Violence is cheap. Violence is easy. And violence works.

The report notes how unbalanced South Africa’s society is, with a tiny group of haves atop a huge population of have-nots. A stunning one-quarter of South Africans are unemployed. Traditional routes to prosperity are not always available — the education system has been rocked by scandal after scandal, including a recent dust-up that saw loads of textbooks dumped into a river in rural Limpopo province.

So for many young men, it logically follows: get what you want by hook ... or by crook.

Failure of institutions

The report also notes that the nation’s enforcement agencies are weak. At one point, authorities acknowledged that poor police work, a slow system and lack of resources added up to one million unsolved murders per year — spectacularly good odds for an aspiring killer.

In the Marikana case, South Africa’s problems have been compounded by what appears to be a widespread failure by the government and its institutions — which have shown themselves to be prone to missteps and to political backlash.

A court charged some 270 survivors of the shooting with murder of their colleagues under a little-used “common purpose” law that was used during the apartheid era against black activists. That court decision was widely met with incredulity and anger. But that charge was almost immediately dropped — though might be reinstated after investigation — after Justice and Constitutional Development Minister Jeff Radebe queried it. Even though the murder charge was roundly condemned, the sudden dropping of the charge declawed the courts.

Violence is also easy to justify. In South Africa, political violence is seen as legitimate, and has historically been protected. No one justified it better than the father of the nation, Nelson Mandela, when he founded the armed wing of the African National Congress in 1961.

As Mandela said at the time: “We felt that without violence there would be no way open to the African people to succeed in their struggle against the principle of white supremacy. All lawful modes of expressing opposition to this principle had been closed by legislation, and we were placed in a position in which we had either to accept a permanent state of inferiority, or take over the government. We chose to defy the law.”

But somewhere along the way in the intervening decades, that nuanced and thoughtful defence has been forgotten. The violence hare remained.

Still, how can one explain the shocking callousness of individual acts, such as the grainy cell phone video that emerged earlier this year showing a 17-year-old, mentally disabled girl being raped by seven men in a Johannesburg township.

In another terrifying incident, robbers entered a home in July and drowned a 12-year-old boy in boiling water. They gang-raped and killed his mother.

Leaving aside the twisted pathology of these criminal minds, the reasoning for these tactics is horrifyingly simple: they work. Who, after all, wouldn’t turn over the valuables to save their child?

Violence also gets attention. Journalists everywhere respect that old adage, “If it bleeds, it leads.”

That adage seems to have been embraced by the nation’s politicians, who have used violence in their campaigns — a sign of how deeply entrenched it is in the South African psyche.

Disgraced former youth leader Julius Malema, who has called on miners to make the mining sector “ungovernable” calls his movement a “revolution.”

President Jacob Zuma, even used violence as a tenet of his presidential campaign. During that campaign, he performed and danced to a popular traditional song.

The song was called “Bring Me My Machine Gun.”

(Anita Lakshmi Powell is an Indo-American journalist based in Johannesburg.)

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