OP-ED

The poison in our society: Toxic masculinity must be rooted out

By Raymond Suttner 13 September 2019

Raymond Suttner

It is the responsibility of the state and its citizens to make South Africa a safe space from predatory men.

This article first appeared on Creamer Media’s website: www.polity.org.za

Recent weeks have been widely interpreted as representing crises for the Cyril Ramaphosa presidency, and it does not look as if they will abate in the near future. One of the reasons appears to be an element of withdrawal or detachment of Ramaphosa in relation to the issues that engulf him. There is also ambiguity over his stance on these and other issues where decisive leadership and understanding are required. There is clearly also an ongoing “fightback” and sabotage of his efforts in a range of ways, as with the astonishing and confirmed sabotage by individuals in the SABC, who aired a rehearsal Ramaphosa address to the nation, rather than the one that was intended.

Xenophobia: Name it by its name!

There is a general sense that one has of Ramaphosa and much of the leadership not being “hands-on” in relation to the issues of the day. The continual refrain that the xenophobic attacks are criminal and not xenophobic lacks credibility to this, and any person who follows this question will know that in the period before the recent violence, there have been numerous attacks and victimisation of foreign migrants, as with the evictions from homes in Alexandra and Orange Grove by vigilantes claiming to have City of Johannesburg lists of lawful occupiers. That these were not legitimate actions is borne out by at least one case where the house was being rented but owned by a South African who was living in Cape Town. There are numerous and ongoing cases of victimisation (often with police present).

But there is also ongoing co-operation with foreign shopkeepers who are valued by the poorer communities. Their shops are supported because they are open at all hours, and they often sell items cheaply and extend credit.

It is true, however, that these same communities may loot the shops on which they are dependent when the opportunity arises. It is part of an ambiguity relating to ongoing poverty. Absolute power, it is claimed, corrupts absolutely. But the absolute powerlessness that the poor often experience, also has an impact on people’s moral compass. What is clear and undeniable is that this criminality, while it does affect some South Africans who have been looted or killed, specifically targets foreign migrants. If that is the case, why is there this reluctance to name the deed for what it is?

Attacks and murders of women and children:

The recent xenophobic violence in Gauteng happened at the same time as a groundswell of anger over ongoing rapes and murders of women and children. The killing of UCT student, Uyinene (“Nene”) Mrwetyana and others in recent weeks seemed to have been a spark for widespread mobilisation of women and many men against the scourge of killing and attacks on women and children, including babies.

There is nothing new about such attacks and these ought not to have been addressed only in a situation of urgency. There is evidently no systematic plan to address the gender-based violence (GBV), specifically against women and children, nor is there a coherent approach towards gender equality in a broader sense.

What also needs reflection is the lack of credibility that leadership has earned for itself. This is captured in a twitter thread of Andisiwe Makinana (who uses the name “Scapegoat”) of the Sunday Times:

President Ramaphosa facing a hostile crowd outside Parliament.

CR: I have with me my colleagues from Cabinet, ministers and deputy ministers

Crowd: We don’t care

CR: I come here before you with great humility.

Crowd: Hayi Suka!

CR: I stand before you with a deep sense of feeling.

Crowd: Yoooooh!

CR: I know what you are all going through.

Crowd: YOOOOH! You don’t know.

CR: It is important to continue as a nation to show our solidarity and to show our care and compassion.

Crowd member: WHAT CARE?

There is an inadequate appreciation that the scourge of violence, specifically violence against women and children, is related to the broader failure to adequately relate to the problem of patriarchy and violent masculinities and to name these as the cause of the rapes and deaths. The mother of Nene Mrwetyana poignantly reproached herself for not warning her daughter not to go into a post office – where she was raped and murdered. Understandably, her mother asked herself what more she could have done to have her daughter still be alive.

But many have remarked that it is not the responsibility of women and children to stay away from “dangerous” places. It is the responsibility of the state and its citizens to make South Africa a safe space from predatory men and to find a way of reducing and eliminating toxic masculinity.

This raises the question of whether gender equality and violence against women and children are adequately addressed. One of the reasons for the lack of progress is that the entire question of gender equality is generally denuded of its connection with patriarchy, and successes in achieving gender equality are treated quantitatively: How many women are in the Cabinet, Parliament or in various other institutions and organisations?

What is not asked is whether women necessarily use their presence in these institutions to advance gender equality and curb GBV. It is not automatic that a woman in any position of power necessarily signifies an advance in gender equality. Insofar as patriarchy is a structural phenomenon, embedded in various institutions, practices and cultures, it can be reinforced and advanced by women as well as men, where the institutional culture is patriarchal. In short, there can be and are patriarchal women.

The same phenomenon operates with racist law enforcement, where police, generally black police, wave white motorists past in roadblocks and tend to stop black people who can sometimes be seen being frisked by the side of the road or pavement. White and black police and private security continue to racially profile black people as potential criminals.

The inadequate response to GBV or violence against women is also seen in the calls for heavy sentences and sometimes castration. Extreme penalties are supposedly a sign of seriousness in tackling these crimes. It focuses on individual “scoundrels” who must be locked away indefinitely and/or castrated. But it does nothing to address the ways in which patriarchy has violence embedded in its policing of the behaviour of women and all others who do not conform to heterosexual norms and the patriarchal male sense of entitlement to women’s bodies.

Violent masculinities:

The question of violence against women is one related to masculinities, and by that, I do not mean that all men should take specific and direct personal responsibility for the rapes and murders of women. I do not take responsibility for these, but what we need to be doing is ask ourselves not simply what we ourselves do, but what are the models of masculinity that are commended to young boys growing into men, in South African society? What is regarded as touchstones of manhood? To what extent are boys advised to be gentle rather than or in addition to being physically tough in their daily lives? What type of people are anointed as heroes in our society? What kinds of qualities in boys and men are decried as “effeminate”, and therefore not really manly?

This is not a purely South African problem but one that is found throughout the world, where violence is primarily the act of boys and men. It is notably so in the US where toxic masculinity is fuelled by a proliferation of guns and killings mainly of African-Americans.

Learning from the legacies of Zuma?

In the case of the Ramaphosa presidency, this question relates directly to the way in which the post-Zuma ANC and government has related to the legacies of the Jacob Zuma presidency. There has been a reference to nine wasted years and this allusion, like most other references to the Zuma period, relates to corruption, State Capture and economic stagnation.

When the Ramaphosa leadership articulates what it represents by contrast with that of the Zuma period, it generally focuses on its efforts to address corruption and State Capture, tackling the debt and the rule of law, as in the attempts to reconstitute and clean up the NPA, Hawks, SARS, state-owned enterprises and other crucial institutions needed to ensure compliance with legality and the rule of law.

In making this emphasis, there are minimal attempts to link the Zuma period with the extreme form of patriarchy that it represented, the most conservative versions of customs and cultures or caricatures of these, used to advance violent masculinity. Whether or not he was found guilty by the court in the rape of Fezekile Ntsukela Kuzwayo, who used the name “Khwezi”, that trial witnessed singing and dancing by Zuma and his allies, many of whom are still in Cabinet or in other leading positions, that were threatening songs, songs that mimicked a rape.

Umshini wam”, meaning “bring me my machine-gun” is not merely a Struggle song when deployed in a time of peace, and especially in the context of a rape trial. It is a song of war, and the gun is very often seen as a phallic symbol and the firing of bullets signifying ejaculation.

It is a Struggle song whose meanings bear very different connotations in a time of peace. Those who so assiduously sang that song, especially in a time of peace, symbolically endorsed taking women by force.

The very conduct that Zuma displayed, whether or not he was found not guilty in court, was highly threatening and disrespectful of the complainant and potentially threatening towards women in general. This has never been repudiated by the post-Zuma ANC.

There has been no review of the stance taken by the entire ANC-led alliance and its Women’s League and Youth League during this trial. This failure to account is equally true of Cosatu and the SACP.

It may well be that different leadership could have an impact on how the organisations stand in relation to gender and women’s issues, insofar as such leaders may deploy more understanding of the centrality of patriarchy and masculinities.

The question of power:

But we also need to consider how power can be deployed in order to advance gender equality and defend women, children and other vulnerable groups against sexual assault and other violence.

The call for a state of emergency made by some of the protesters, as well as former deputy president Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka, needs to be approached with caution. A state of emergency puts the country on a war footing. Given that the security forces have not shown themselves to be adequate in their response to GBV and xenophobia, do we want to give them more powers?

This is a time to recall the powerful women’s organisations of the past (going back to the early years of the 20th century), some of which dissolved themselves voluntarily in 1990 in order to make way for the ANCWL. There is a place for a women’s organisation affiliated to the ANC and any other political organisation. But there is also a need for mass organisations of women as well as of feminist men and LGBTQI+ individuals, that specifically advance the needs of these causes.

There is a role for the state that needs careful reflection. But the crisis of violent masculinities needs to be addressed by all who want to build a safe and free South Africa where all can walk the streets and be secure in their homes and wherever they want to be. DM

Raymond Suttner is a visiting professor in the Faculty of Humanities, University of Johannesburg, a senior research associate at the Centre for Change and emeritus professor at Unisa. He served lengthy periods in prison and house arrest for underground and public anti-apartheid activities. His writings cover contemporary politics, history, and social questions, especially issues relating to identities, gender and sexualities. He blogs at raymondsuttner.com and his Twitter handle is @raymondsuttner.

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