South Africa is a very violent society. This is confirmed every day in the news. It follows that we are a violently traumatised people. This is confirmed by our hyper alertness and the high levels of fear and anxiety within so many of us. Rage and the threat of violence never seem far from the surface in SA. For our own sanity we block out large parts of this traumatising truth. We become numb by necessity. All this is so normalised that we are barely aware of it, yet ask anyone who has had an opportunity to travel outside of South Africa what they most enjoyed and without fail we hear: “It was just so good to walk around freely.”
Sometimes the constant high tide of violence feels like it surges even higher or perhaps we just seem to catch more of the headlines than usual or our own experience and the headlines collide. Like the person who was mugged two months ago. She told me she is so grateful that she was not physically harmed, yet her physical body begs to differ with her: she still cannot sleep through the night and all she wants to do is retreat into her house and never come out. For others their house is no place of safety at all as the statistics around GBV and domestic violence testify. Still others live with low intensity threats on their life every day, like the city fruit seller who must deal with threats of intimidation most mornings while setting up his stall. The threat is: “Let me help you set up your stall, or else…” Just take a moment to mull that over in your mind…
While Martin Luther King jr said: “A riot is the language of the unheard”, violence seems to be the 12th official language of South Africa with just about everyone fluent in it and if not fluent then at least schooled in it Whether it be a university student or a health care worker on strike or a member of the police the message is the same: “Violence is the only language they understand.” Or “Unless something burns no one will take notice.” Even though we have all seen the horrors of violence play out we keep returning to it again and again asking it to be our saviour.
Some argue violence is only a ‘last resort’ but the last soon becomes the first resort. Take for example the horror of a fortnight ago, when Four electricians were killed by Ekurhuleni residents while trying to restore power to their suburb. The community thought they were copper-cable thieves, as if that would have justified their mob murder. Again, mull this over for a moment… How do the families of the killed ever heal from this? And how does the community responsible ever process this?
The most pervasive crime and violence in our country is not actually named crime and violence, and yet this is exactly what poverty is, especially poverty in the presence of wealth. The violence of poverty differs from gun violence in the number of fingers on the trigger. Instead of one finger on the trigger there are many hands on many levers over much time, but the result is the same: death. Poverty is not a natural phenomenon. It is systemically designed. Take the story from two weeks ago: Girl, 4 found dead in pit toilet in Eastern Cape. See how poverty and the neglect of care kills? This particular form of violence repeats itself even though a very simple solution exists:
News24 has reported that, according to the 2021 National Education Infrastructure Management System report, more than 1400 schools in the Eastern Cape had pit toilets. Over the last decade, a number of children have died in pit toilets. In December, the body of a three-year-old boy was found in a pit toilet in a village outside Vuwani in Limpopo. In 2018, a five-year-old girl died after falling into a pit toilet at Luna Primary School in Bizana in the Eastern Cape. In 2014, Grade R pupil Michael Komape died at Mahlodumela Primary School in Limpopo after he fell into a pit toilet.
What we call “service delivery protests” are in fact cries for the means of life. When these means of life are withheld people die. This is violence. This is crime. Poverty is a primary form of violence that is not recognised as violence, yet it begets violence that is recognised as violence.
This cycle of violence is so clearly portrayed in the work of Anthony Collins. He suggests we turn the problem on its head and ask what we should do if we actually wanted to create a violent society. Presented this way, Collins shows that some key suggestions are easily identified:
- Teach children violence through observation and personal experience.
- Expose the young and vulnerable to overwhelming distressing emotions without appropriate emotional support, so that they develop unstable emotional defences.
- Expose people to stressful situations that they are unable to manage.
- Maintain many types of inequality.
- Withhold the provision of non-violent skills for resolving conflict and stress.
- Normalise violence by maintaining socially acceptable forms of it, and forms that are legitimated by social authorities.
Jesus says: “Blessed are the peacemakers”. Now we know what peace-making means. It means we must address these 6 ingredients of violence.