What’s wrong with South African men?

When Josephine Vika asked Mzimkhulu Jam, a former Umkhonto we Sizwe sergeant major who brutally raped and murdered her 21-year-old daughter, Nosipho Vika, why he had done it, she did not expect his response.

‘€œAg Voetsek,’€ he said. ‘€œI don’t have to answer to women’€.

After Jam was jailed for 26 years in February Josephine told a reporter that in that moment, she had seen that he believed women were no better than animals.

Ask most men what’s wrong with South African men or why they’re so abusive, and the response is equally unsatisfying. South African men, it appears, are in deep states of denial, usually blaming women for ‘€œemasculating’€ them or ‘€œgiving them a bad name’€ before speaking out against other violent males.      

Many people fighting violence against women and children want to change this by enlisting men’s help. But it’€™s the proverbial Catch-22.

Why would a man with no respect for women listen to women when we say violence towards women is unacceptable? And how can men who profess to respect women not take a stand against the men who do not?

Rosie Motene, who plays reporter Tsego in the TV series Generations, is an anti-abuse campaigner with first-hand experience of male violence. She told a national men’s conference on women’s abuse in East London earlier this year that she’s determined to change the male mindset in South Africa.

Motene believes that this is the only thing that will stop gender violence in the country.

‘€œSouth African men need to get over their backward ideas of how things are. That is creating the violence,’€ she says.

By “backward ideas” she means the instilled belief in the so-called “natural order” of gender inequality. It’€™s particularly pronounced in South Africa, where it has been complicated by our apartheid legacy, fundamental Christianity and African tradition.

Reverend Bafana Khumalo, Gender Equality Commissioner, agrees that many men see their “superiority” as biblically sanctioned. However, he directly challenges this.

According to him, the bible that many use to justify God-given male privilege must be read in the context of its time and the fact that it was written by men with an interest in male dominance.

When it comes to violence against women and children Rev Khumalo reckons: ‘€œMen are doing it with other men. With their tacit compliance and endorsement. With their protective silence. Without censure. Without the distaste reserved for other criminal acts. Without the acknowledgement that it is indeed a serious criminal offence and that the man who acts in this manner is no more worthy of respect than an embezzler, a fraudster, a drug baron.’€

Khumalo speaks also of the levels of compliance in our male-dominated policing and justice systems, which ‘€œenable’€ abusers.

‘€œThere are still policemen who, when asked to intervene in domestic violence or when a woman arrives at a police station to lay a charge, say, ‘€˜Go back home and talk about it,’€™ and previously convicted rapists, brutal rapists, get bail.’€

Khumalo is frustrated by men “who don’t rise to the challenge of democracy, who say, they (women) have taken our rights as men”.

‘€œWhich rights are those?’€ he asks. ‘€œMen want to go on with impunity, and show their machismo by bashing women around. But the men that do this won’t do it to other men.’€

According to Khumalo, one of the biggest problems with South African men is an inferiority complex in a system that guarantees them rights they haven’€™t earned. He sees it as the same principle that dominated white rule in South Africa.

‘€œWithout these unearned rights, you have to earn your keep, to become proactive in your life and do better. Men may imagine that they’ve lost rights, but they haven’t. Opportunities are open, men cannot be barred from any avenue, but they have to become better and work harder,’€ he says.

About the call that modernisation and Westernisation have been confused, that empowering women goes against “African culture”, he says. ‘€œMen use culture to hide behind; it provides a comfort. But they are speaking English, wearing Western clothes and holding down untraditional jobs. I confront them and ask, ‘What are you saying about culture? You call on African culture only when it oppresses others, when you put a foot right on someone else’s neck’.’€

What there has been, says Khumalo, is an adulteration of culture to perpetuate patriarchy. Men can now leave a woman to cope on her own or abandon his children, which they could not have done in true African culture.

‘€œMen are being selective,’€ he says. ‘€œCulture is a pretense. What there is, is a desire for dominance.’€

But it seems that the proverbial chickens are home to roost, and they are not healthy. The price we’re paying for male dominance is mounting, and fast.

It’s driving our rising HIV infection rates and threatening country’s development as a whole. And it is a price that men, as well as women, will pay unless men start to address questions about masculinity, about what it means to be a man.

If Geeta Rao Gupta, President of the International Center for Research on Women and Doctor of Social Psychology, were asked what is wrong with South African men, she might well respond that they have been crippled in many ways by gender stereotypes and norms.

Anything that goes against the expected male image, she says, is avoided — namely, disclosing homosexuality, protecting themselves or their partners against sexually transmitted diseases and HIV/AIDS and being faithful to one woman.

‘€œMen, like women, are crippled by societal gender norms,’€ Gupta says.

In addition, gender inequality works to the disadvantage of a family household. If the woman has the greater affinity for finances, for examples, many men won’t entertain the thought of allowing her this control –the pressure to “wear the pants” often means that the weaker individual sabotages the family’s life chances and future progress.

According to Gupta, gender stereotyping means that women have less access to education, employment, land, income, credit, and mobility — what in most societies give individuals power.

‘€œThat imbalance of power in the social and economic spheres of life translates into a power imbalance in heterosexual relationships. As a result, men more often than women, are able to control where, when and how sex takes place.’€

Thus, she continues, ‘€œwomen are disadvantaged when it comes to preventing AIDS through condom use, fidelity in relationships and treatment for sexually transmitted diseases.’€

And it is not just at the threshold of HIV infection that gender inequality is threatening South Africa’s future. According to a coalition of NGOs working in the field of violence against women, the degradation of the female and the glorification of the male that leads to violence is a “scourge” that is hindering our country’s very development.

Citing South Africa’s high incidence of rape and violence against women (52 860 rapes were reported in 2001 and one woman is killed by her partner every six days), they name three ways in which violence against women is a development issue.

Abused women can become “wasted resources”, abuse can jeopardise their health and violence against women can “constrain their participation in the labour force’. This brings direct and indirect financial costs to both victims and the state (an estimated cost of R29 million was incurred by the health departments of the Eastern Cape, Mpumulanga and Limpopo as a result of violence against women in 2001 alone).

However, as Dr Mamphela Ramphele notes in her book ‘€˜Steering by the Stars’€™, ‘€œIt is unlikely that men, who see women and children as subjects of matrimonial negotiations between patrilineages, will initiate changes’€.

Yet evidence is mounting and it must be a matter of time until men come to the realisation that a steadfast refusal to negotiate shared power relations amounts to societal suicide.

Ramphele talks about the ‘”myth” of the male as the primary provider and leader of the household’ becoming more noticeable. She asks, ”€ow are young people to understand their own evolving roles in a community that insists on male dominance even when men are absent physically and emotionally? How do young men learn to become men in such a setting?’€

At last some debate on this issue has been opened. At a regional conference on men and HIV/AIDS held in March in Pretoria, activists and researchers decided that   ‘€œ[a] new way of perceiving manhood would empower men to live their sexuality differently and to take active community responsibility.’€ Male sense of “displacement and irrelevance”, added with poverty and unemployment, undermines male self-esteem. Society and media-channeled negative male images “are internalised by young men, turning into a self-fulfilling prophecy,” said Sebastian Matroos, of the Youth Skills Development Programme of the Centre for the Study of AIDS at the University of Pretoria.

‘€œThere is more rejection than inclusion with the result that young men feel blamed for all social evils and withdraw,’€ he explained.

It sounds like an impossible task, but there is at least one example of how fundamental changes can be instilled and work to the good of households and communities while directly addressing the spread of HIV/AIDS.

The Empilisweni Woodlands HIV Centre was started in 1999, providing training workshops, HIV and AIDS education, and school education on HIV and AIDS for 21 villages in the rural Eastern Cape.

Judy Joseph of the Centre says that when it began, gender inequality meant that ‘€œmen didn’t want to listen to women about condom use and related issues, but that’s changing. In the beginning it was difficult,’€ Joseph continues.

‘€œMen would just sit back and wait for everything to come to them. They would wait for their clothes to be cleaned, the food to be on the table, for everything. They felt the change was making them give up their power. Even if they could see it was better for their household, it was difficult because they were used to giving orders and not listening to women. They were used to a status quo, in which women must take care of everything and must obey them.’€

But through a series of projects aimed at empowering women to become independent from men and to raise their circumstances, economic viability and education levels, and because women are learning skills like sewing, business management and others to which economic value is attached while becoming aware of their rights, men have begun to respect women.

‘€œMen can see that these women are no longer dependent on them. These empowered women will be fine without the man, and he must thus respect her and he must behave. In this way, households have started to fight poverty together,’€ says Joseph.

The shift is affecting younger generations, too.

‘€œIf they’ve seen that their mothers aren’t respected, they don’t have respect for women,’€ explains Joseph. ‘€œBut when they see that women can be independent and don’t need men, that changes.’€

Gupta notes that one of the root problems is the very perception of “power”. ‘€œThere’s this notion that power is finite,’€ she says. ‘€œIt’s a pie and if you take a piece, then I get less. I like to believe that power is infinite in the long term, so that if you give women power you’re not taking away men’s power, you’re adding to the power of the entire household, the community, the country.’€

And there are signs that some men are becoming aware of this. Drawing on his work in Limpopo province Khumalo points to the way that traditional structures have undergone shifts, with women now able to represent themselves to chiefs and with certain issues, like incest, being referred to police. Lastly, he mentions a groundbreaking case in the Tzaneen area where a chief died leaving only one daughter, naming her his successor. It’s an unheard of breakthrough when girls do not have inheritance rights and where there have never been female chiefs. Her uncle is contesting this (in the Supreme Court, interestingly, and not a tribal one).

‘€œIn terms of her inheritance and chieftancy, the cultural process was followed to the letter,’€ says Khumalo. ‘€œThe only deviation is on the matter of gender. It brings up that there is a disjuncture between women’s rights in tribal law and our democracy’€, he says.

So change is possible, and it happening, albeit slowly. Impiliswene proves in reality the point that Gupta makes in theory: ‘€œIf traditional norms are causing a cycle of death and disease for our young, and are in fact destroying families, households and communities, then these norms must change. [W]hen something is recognised as dysfunctional social change occurs because societies want to survive. The tragedy is that most societies wait to long, so that destruction occurs on a large scale before change begins to happen.’€

The appalling rates of violence against women and children in South Africa is a warning that something is indeed wrong with our gender norms, and they are causing massive destruction.

Change must happen now. As Gupta says, ‘€œGender inequality kills people. It’s no longer just costly. It’s fatal.’€


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