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Towards a peaceful South Africa – A call to action against violence in society


Janet Jobson is the CEO of the Desmond & Leah Tutu Legacy Foundation (

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.

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 Risk that 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.

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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.

Gender-based violence

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. DM


Comments - Please in order to comment.

  • Richard Baker says:

    Well written and thought provoking but the rallying calls are naive until the fundamental failings of government are corrected. In major part the scourge of violence has roots in sheer frustration at the governments abdication of managing the country. Listen to the open-lines of any chat show and the majority of calls are from people who have tried to engage national, municipal or local authorities without success and have no where else to turn to. Absence of law enforcement, the rise of gangs and criminality, politicians and connected persons plundering the state whilst refusing pay adjustments to deserving health workers and the list goes on.
    The support of apolitical foundations such as the Desmond Tutu and benign embassies such as the Dutch for new groupings such as the Rivonia Circle would be moved in the right direction.

  • Glyn Silberman says:

    The author contends that as a society we use violence to communicate our frustrations, our dashed hopes, our individual insecurities, and our sense of unfairness and so on. I would say that the vast majority do not use violence at all, they simply internalise the dashed hopes etc. I would suggest that a lot of the violence is used by bullies who have learned that that’s the way to get what they want, whether from a parent, spouse, child, government or society in general.

  • Sam van Coller says:

    There was a similar article in DM yesterday describing the extent of trauma in our society. Unfortunately these are the symptoms of a society in an advanced state of disintegration. There are many other indicators – excessive alcohol consumption, single parent households, teenage pregnancies, carnage on the roads, crime and corruption, gang warfare, mental health, the monetisation of lobola and initiation to name some of them. Unfortunately our political and economic history from deep in the past right up to yesterday has been characterized by exclusion, alienation and extraction. In simple words, those in authority have consistently used their power to benefit the few resulting in a growing population of marginalized people as well as marginalized geographic areas. Each year the number increases by half a million young people leaving school without an employable education or skill. Individual survival becomes a driving force as people think about getting through today and as the above article says become fatalistic about the future. Values that promote social cohesion have been thrown out of the window. We need to be debating how to start rebuilding our society. Two first steps would seem to be critical – firstly to make a paradigm shift by investing much more of the economic surplus in the marginalized people and areas and secondly by starting to work together on rebuilding and less in contests of power with each other. Education, skills development and housing to help restore the family and kinship group are critical. It is not an impossible task.

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