South Africa: A violent people, a violent nation
We can reduce violence in SA, but to do that we need to change the way we think about it and implement programmes that have been proved to work in homes and schools
It is common knowledge that SA has one of the highest murder rates in the world. Less well understood is why this is the case. Most people tend to think the problem lies with the violent behaviour of problematic people who live elsewhere.
In reality, the genesis of the problem is closer to home.
It is generally understood that democracy emerged as an alternative to violence as a means of solving political disputes. There is some research to show that countries with well-established democracies and cultural norms of nonviolence tend to have lower murder rates. However, the transition to democracy from an autocratic system is typically associated with higher levels of violence.
This was certainly true in SA, where the murder rate started soaring in the early 1980s, before peaking at 78 murders per 100,000 people in 1993 — the year before we became a democracy.
Since then the rate has largely declined, reaching a low of 30 per 100,000 in 2012, before increasing to its current level of 35.8 per 100,000.
Our history of violent conquest and subjugation resulted in the exposure to violence of many generations of South Africans across all walks of life. So it is unsurprising that norms and values that support violence are widespread. Most South Africans believe some level of violence is not only necessary, but often desirable in certain circumstances.
This was particularly clear in the recent outpouring of anger at unacceptable levels of gender-based violence, triggered by a number of high-profile cases. Loud calls were made to bring back the death sentence and to castrate rapists.
Around the same time, groups of people looted and burnt down shops, with many using the excuse that this was effectively "dealing with foreigners" who were accused of stealing jobs and selling drugs.
These examples would seem to suggest that violence is largely perpetrated by criminals or groups of thugs. But about half of those who perpetrate serious assaults are known to their victims — they’re acquaintances, friends, intimate partners, relatives.
Essentially, most violence takes place in the home. Research has found that over a third of children have experienced some level of physical abuse in the home.
It was not surprising, then, that when the Constitutional Court upheld a ruling that hitting children is illegal there was an outcry that cut across the usual fault-lines of class and race. Many people cannot fathom disciplining their children without subjecting them to physical pain — essentially an act of violence.
This does not mean that hitting children will inevitably result in them becoming violent individuals, but it is a well-documented risk factor. Children who repeatedly experience or are exposed to violence in the home from a young age are many times more likely to perpetrate or fall victim to violence as adults than those who don’t.
The reason is that exposure to violence causes stress, resulting in the body releasing hormones and chemicals as an automatic response. The more violence a child or older person is exposed to, the greater the negative impact of these chemicals on the brain and developmental functioning.
The consequences can be social, emotional and cognitive impairment that may lead to adverse consequences, such as the inability to concentrate at school and taking part in high-risk behaviours, such as drug and alcohol abuse.
Research conducted by the Institute for Security Studies into the life histories of repeat violent offenders of serious crimes such as murder, rape and robbery found exposure to high levels of violence and neglect at an early life stage.
That the foundation of much violent behaviour starts in the home, school and community explains why, despite substantial resources being allocated to the criminal justice system (at present almost R140bn a year), we have not seen reductions in murder and gender-based violence.
Of course, a strong and well-functioning criminal justice system is necessary to establish the rule of law, and it can make a substantial difference in reducing crimes, such as robbery and murder, that occur due to intergroup conflict (taxi, gang or xenophobic violence, for example).
But to reduce violence in a sustainable manner we need to reduce the experience of violence by women and children in their homes, schools and communities. This means implementing a range of evidence-based violence-prevention programmes that assist caregivers of infants and children.
It also means focusing our attention on changing male attitudes and behaviour.
As in other parts of the world, the main perpetrators and victims of violence in SA are men. Of the 58 people who are murdered every day on average, 47 are men, eight are women and three are children.
If we don’t start to think differently and implement programmes that have been proven to reduce violence in the home and at schools, we will be still facing this challenge in 10 years’ time.
We cannot simply police our way out of the problem.
• Newham is the head of the justice & violence prevention programme at the Institute for Security Studies