At the end of 2022, the Desmond & Leah Tutu Legacy Foundation partnered with the Dutch Embassy to explore a series of courageous conversations about violence in our society.
These conversations were rooted in the foundation’s work with activists and organisations to facilitate experiences of healing and existing together in a safe and democratic society.
At the heart of Archbishop Desmond Tutu’s lived example was his powerful insistence on the power of peace, and his urgent wish for all South Africans – and people around the world – to experience justice and mutual flourishing.
Unfortunately, for South African communities, violence has become a major mode of expression, whether it is the scourge of gender-based violence that has a deep impact on all of us, or the xenophobia which is often a violent response to the economic pressures of our times.
We also live in a country where service delivery protests have contributed to considerable infrastructural damage – let alone the fact that denying citizens access to basic services is also a form of structural violence. Not to mention the alarming statistics of deaths attributed to increasing road rage – as a society we use violence to communicate our frustrations, our dashed hopes, our individual insecurities, and our sense of unfairness.
The sociologists Aaron Wildavsky and Mary Douglas note in the Cultural Theory of Riskthat societies like ours – defined by the toxic mix of extreme socioeconomic polarisation and very constrained individual opportunity or mobility – tend towards cultures of fatalism. And in a fatalistic society, there is very little hope to buoy us up.
In the Birth to Twenty (BT20) longitudinal study conducted in Soweto, 99% of children in the cohort had been exposed to violence by the time they turned 18. Whenever I think of this alarming statistic, I am deeply perturbed by what it means for our society that our children are almost universally exposed to violence from a young age.
The Arch understood the importance of loving care in the early years. He noted:
“That period when you are formed – it shows later – whether you were held or not. Whether you had a sense that this was not an alien world; that you are safe. People that are insecure almost always pretend that they are not. And they want to find the security almost always by clobbering others. [But men] do have a gentle side… It is not weakness; it is a gentleness. It is a gentleness that is very strong.”
How do we shift from a society defined by violence to one defined by gentleness and compassion?
Many extraordinary civil society organisations have worked tirelessly to contribute towards tackling violence through national strategic plans. One such organisation, Sonke Gender Justice, whose representatives recently joined our conversation on healing violent masculinities, have spent nearly two decades on this work.
Speaking on this specific issue of gender-based violence, Dutch Consul-General Hélène Rekkers noted that gender-based violence is a global problem rooted in patterns of unequal power relations shaped by patriarchal beliefs, systems, and institutions.
“Gender equality should therefore be addressed from different angles and in a holistic nature. Ending it requires a structural shift in male and female power relations, by transforming patriarchal masculine norms and beliefs and practices that govern and shape men and boys,” she commented.
The work of shifting societal violence also requires the restitching of our social fabric: the slow and “soft” work at the coalface of our norms of masculinity; the generations of impact of the violence of our brutal past; and the need for courageous people to stand up – time and time again – to defuse situations of violence.
If we are to tackle violence, we must reimagine masculinity and redefine “otherness” and the social costs we are willing to tolerate.
We must embark on processes of encouraging, profiling, and supporting the expression of masculine gentleness.
We need to think about the early modelling that our children are exposed to.
And we need to create space for all people to inhabit their full humanity.
Being violent is a way to feel that you have some agency in a world which is extremely unjust and constrained. But we can develop alternate forms of agency – the power to shift, even if only slightly, the conditions we live in; the power to end cycles of generational violence; the power to come to the table and repair the damage done by the atrocities that were committed against the majority of South Africans.
If we are to shift South Africa’s culture of violence, we will need a mass of courageous people willing to reimagine the norms of our society.
The Arch showed us this was possible. Now we must take this on as the urgent work of reclaiming our shared humanity.
Authored by Janet Jobson