Why So Much Violence in South Africa?

10 October 2006: Why So Much Violence in South Africa?


A 78-year-old woman managed to identify the men who raped her and then set fire to her body before she died.  The brutal rape and murder of the woman and her niece on Tuesday last week have left the Grahamstown community shocked and angry…” (1).


Last week in Grahamstown, there were a series of brutal rapes and murders reported. In any given week, reports of men murdering their spouses or raping women dominate the newspaper headlines here in South Africa.


Although it has one the most progressive constitutions in the world for gender equality where the constitution guarantees the right to bodily integrity, South Africa has one of the highest levels of gender violence in the world. Whatever the statistics, one rape is one too many, and the South African court system is oft overwhelmed in dealing with rape cases quickly and sensitively. 50% of all cases heard before courts are those of rape. It is undeniable that the government takes this issue seriously and has made some progress on reducing violent crime rates.


Between 2002 and 2005, the SAPS trained 17,475 detectives and in keeping with the requirements of Domestic Violence Act, 1,148 police officers were trained in the protection of domestic violence victims. Nevertheless, while murders have decreased by 5.6% and attempted murders by 18.8% since the end of 2005, sexual crimes increased in 2004/05, with rape up by 4% and indecent assault by 8%. While SAPS credited this increase to the effective reporting mechanisms now in place, it is undeniable that violent crime directed at women is still alarmingly high.


The root cause of violence in South Africa has not changed much since the apartheid era and the current high rate of violent crime is just as related to economic and social marginalization as it was during the 1980s. Nonetheless, this is true for most African countries where the gap between the rich and poor has widened and the youth face a lack of social and economic opportunities. One may question whether there is any peculiarity to explain why South Africa has such high rates of domestic violence and rape and violent crimes in general.


In addition to high levels of poverty, unemployment and inequity, factors such as the easy access to and availability of small arms and the strains in political power are at the root of this endemic problem in South Africa. The dismantling of apartheid has created new power bases and destroyed old ones and this shift in power is a very significant factor in the violence - and one perhaps that is underestimated. In addition there are other factors that help make a life of crime very attractive to a small but significant group of marginalized youth who are often (but not always) linked to these crimes. The career criminal in South Africa becomes immersed in a particular culture and an elaborate system of deviance with its own symbols and language. Young men who turn to crime as a way of life refer to their activities as “going on duty” or “keeping up the syllabus.” The terms they use reflect the fact that crime is seen as a way to gain status and opportunity. In fact, from a certain perspective, youth involvement in gangs can actually be an expression of youth resilience and a sense of belonging — a social response to marginalization. Understanding marginalization is very important to understanding the patterns of violence in South Africa. “In crime, there is a hierarchy,” says a young man interviewed by CSVR, (2) “you grow from strength to strength until you are up there doing the business where there is a lot of money. When you are there, we respect you, and to us, you are like someone working on the Johannesburg Stock Exchange.”


Blame it on nature, nurture or environmental and/or social construction, domestic violence and rape in this country is a reality and all factors that propagate it need to be examined and addressed by the government, the judicial system, the correction services and the police service in an attempt to bring an end to this violence against women.


Carole Njoki, Training for Peace Programme, ISS Tshwane (Pretoria) Office

1. Mail and Guardian, 06 October 2006

2. Centre for the Study of Violence and Reconciliation