The trauma of violence on communities

Photograph; Phando Jikelo/African News Agency(ANA)

On a daily basis, South Africans read of murders that happened in their communities. Any South African citizen can become a victim of a brutal crime. According to the Global Peace Index of 2020, South Africa is ranked as the 24th most unsafe country in the world, with the cost of violence being 13% of the GDP. It is further reported that there was an increase of 86% in civil unrest from 2011 to 2018 (Institute for Economics & Peace, 2020). During 2018, it had already been estimated that 110 children are raped and 49 children are killed daily in South Africa (Shozi, 2018). During 2019/2020, 21 325 murders were reported. This is an increase of 1.4%, which amounts to 58 people being murdered daily (Writer, 2020).

Just this month, we read and heard about the shocking killings of Brendin Horner (22) in the Free State; Tyron Philander (32) in Ravensmead, Cape Town; Leon Brits (48) in the Northern Cape; and Raymond Gregory Papabavlou (28) in Limpopo. And who can forget the murders of Tazne van Wyk (8); Soyaphi Thomas Nkuna (63); Eugene Peter du Plessis (54); Sidwell Pepper (44); Susanna Maria Elizabeth Nell (84); Peet van Wyk (73); Patricia Vause Taylor (65); Reagen Gertse (8); Sibusiso Dakuse (12); Mandlakayise ‘Mandla’ Mahlangu (42); Charlie Hart (75); Collin Britz (65); Alwyn van Zyl (79); Roelof Botha (58); Nahemiah Claassens (10); Minenhle Sanelisiwe Mhlongo (4). This is just a brief list of murder victims that was reported on in the media.

The factors causing violence

In South Africa, violence has become a socially acceptable way of dealing with conflict in order to achieve political and personal goals. It has been argued that the omission of the death penalty and early release of prisoners on parole are also factors that cause potential criminals to lose their fear of prosecution. Other factors that may also contribute to violent attacks and murder are the high levels of unemployment and poverty; inequality; revenge and hatred; xenophobia; racism; intimidation and frustration (Schutte, 2004). High levels of violence could lead to emotional desensitization which according to Rankin et al. is a form of habituation, where individuals start to have a decreased emotional response to violence occurring in the country in general. However, from time to time the circumstances surrounding a murder also act as a precipitating incident, where communities under strain, are mobilised to react on a collective level.

The role of digital media cannot be ignored in violent societies. We are living in a digital era, where children as young as three years old have their own cellphones and tablets. Access to inappropriate material such as violence and pornography is available at the click of a button. Young viewers are often unaware that the popup that they are watching while downloading a game is inappropriate and could lead to addiction or wrongful behaviour. Children and adults are playing electronic games where they are the criminals stealing cars, murdering people and abusing sex-workers. Television series and other social media content flood us with violence, hatred and injustice. The graphics and detail of images are so advanced that viewers are transported into the digital reality ‑ our brains and bodies react as if we are in the real situation – going into a fight, flight or freeze mode (Reddan, et al, 2018). Playing violent games or watching violent and brutal images on electronic devices may teach us that violence is normal and is an acceptable way of solving problems.

We are not learning to be sensitive towards other people’s emotions and feelings, not taking into consideration the victims’ experiences of crimes. Another aspect of digital media is that community members take part in discussions on virtual platforms without knowing the facts of the cases – sometimes blaming the victims and making comments that fuel hatred and division. The sad reality is that families may learn about the murder of a loved one on social media (in graphic detail), before the police have even had time to inform the family formally. Sharing images of violence, from school-yard fights, to murder scenes has become “normal”. As a society, we may not even be aware that we are being traumatised by all the violence, brutality, hate and inappropriate content that we are exposed to daily.

The effects of ongoing violence on communities

The long- and short-term effects of ongoing violence on all communities, whether it be farming communities or urban communities are devastating. People live in constant fear and never know when they might be the next victim of a violent offence. Community members have lost their trust and hope in the government and police service, and this has resulted in incidents where community members take justice into their own hands as they feel that government is not acting in their interest and the police cannot protect them (for example an alleged rapist may be stoned to death, instead of informing the police of his whereabouts). Mob justice and violent protests have increased as communities feel that they are only heard if they respond in a violent manner.

The psychological harm of victims could be the most damaging and long-lasting. Victims of crime tend to experience a lack of security and the psychological harm they experience may also influence their family and community members (Visser & Moleko, 2016, p. 308). The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of mental disorders (DSM-5) describes trauma as the “exposure to a specific event that is experienced as terrifying or horrifying”. People’s perceptions and reactions to traumatic events differ and therefore the traumatic incidents include (1) “exposure to actual or threatened death, serious injury or sexual violence”; (2) witnessing a violent incident in person or (3) learning that the event happened to a close family member or close friend (American Psychiatric Association, 2013).

Some of the effects on communities in general might be that they start withdrawing and rather stay at home. People are less active as they cannot go to parks or exercise in the community. Children can no longer play alone with their friends in the street or go to a nearby shop out of perceived and real danger. Some community members will move to another area or even emigrate to another country where they will feel safer or spend increased amounts on safety precautions such as electric fencing, cameras and security guard services. However, for the vast majority of members of our society, increased personal security is simply unaffordable, and constantly living in fear causes trauma and impacts community members’ mental health and well-being.

Systems are also not victim-friendly

It is difficult to assist community members to work through the trauma of murders, while the danger of being murdered is still real and ever-present. The current systems in South Africa are also not victim-friendly and victims are discouraged from reporting crimes. The criminal justice system needs to become more victim-friendly and incorporating more views of the community when determining sentencing. Offenders need to realise the impact that their offences had on the victims and the community. They need to be allowed to restore the damages that they caused in the community and give back through restorative practices. South Africans need to take collaborative action in preventing murders by not becoming lawless themselves and standing up for their constitutional rights to be safe. Contributing factors to people committing murders such as poverty, unemployment, lack of values and ethics, substance abuse and lawlessness need to be addressed.

Other interventions can include:

  • Social activism by raising awareness. This can be specific to communities because crime can present differently in the many communities in South Africa;
  • Victim empowerment by utilising a human rights approach for the reporting of crimes and assisting the victim through the legal process;
  • Economic upliftment to create jobs and stable living wages;
  • The media should begin to present crime in all parts of South Africa and not just focus on specific areas and events. This can help create global awareness;
  • South African communities can be educated and need access to structure and institutions to assist them in getting their needs met by consultation and conflict resolution (Visser & Moleko, 2016).

In order to explain how the criminal justice system can become more victim-friendly, I am going to give a case study. A 19-year-old girl and her friends went to a well-known pub to socialise after working hard on an assignment. A guy spiked the girl’s drink and took her to a nearby motel where he raped her.

When her friends found her, they took her to a police station to open a case of rape the police laughed at her and were very insensitive, treating her like the offender. In a lot of criminal cases victims will be treated and interrogated as if they are the perpetrators. This has a big influence on victims of intimate crimes like gender-based violence and sexual offences. They often do not report the crimes as they do not have the emotional strength to go through a lengthy investigation and court process without being emotionally supported, but rather victimised further.

To change the criminal justice system will take longer, but it is possible. Training needs to be provided to police officials and court personnel on how to be emotionally supportive to victims. Professionals such as social workers can be appointed to assist victims throughout the process without contaminating the facts of the cases.

South Africa is a beautiful country full of resources and potential. Communities need to be instilled with hope for the future and start working together as a nation to build resilience and justice for all.

Opinion article by Mariëtte Joubert, Advisory Board Member of Department of Sociology and Ad hoc lecturer at DiMTEC, University of the Free State.