South Africa is a violent society

File photo: African News Agency (ANA)

There is a terrifying epidemic of all types of violence in South Africa, whether in homes, on the road or in parliament. Everyday disputes between strangers are frequently turning deadly. Domestic violence has spiraled. Violence against women and children has risen. Gang violence has risen to new heights. Race-related violence has spiked. Xenophobic violence in townships flares up regularly.

Violence within supposedly “safe” institutions, such as schools, churches and universities have risen dramatically. There has been a rise in self-harm also, with South Africa now having one of the highest levels of suicides. So everyday has violence become that many South Africans has become used to it, until occasionally a violent incident so brutal shocked them again. South African society as we know now was built on violence. This means the DNA of South Africa is violent.

Colonialism, slavery and apartheid were the original violence. The apartheid state, institutions and laws were violent. Many of South Africa’s liberation movements used counter-violence to respond to apartheid’s violence. Violent solutions to conflict have been part of South Africa’s white colonial and apartheid culture and black counter-colonial and counter-apartheid culture, and black traditional systems.

White South Africa was a militarized society. Disputes in many black pre-colonial traditional societies were resolved with violent strength. Black patriarchal traditional cultures were often also violent – which means that black and white social cultures were violent. Most South Africans have been the victims of violence, whether in child or adulthood, inflicted on them by strangers or loved ones. Some who experience violence, inflict violence on others.

Violence is socially acceptable. Many black and white South Africans, when raising their children use violent punishment if they do wrong. Until recently corporal punishment was central to discipline in South African schools. Some wrongly still bemoans the fact that corporal punishment has been banished in schools and beating of children by parents to discipline them is now unacceptable. Men beating a wife or girlfriend for doing something “wrong” is still seen as “acceptable” in some parts of society.

South Africa has been unable to overcome this deep-seated culture of violence in the country’s cultural DNA. There is been a persistence of political ideologies that hero worship violence. The use of violent language, slogans and anthems in the public discourse is political fashionable. As a case in point, violence and violent rhetoric and slogans continue to be celebrated as “radical” in the democratic era. The violence of the “fees must fall” movement is incredibly in democratic South Africa celebrated as heroic.  Similarly violence by trade union members on strike is treated as above board, because they fight for “justice”.

For another, South Africa has competing governance systems to the democratic constitution. These competing governance systems are often violent, whether “customary law”, gang law, and autocratic leadership cultures within sections of the ANC, former liberation movements and civil society groups. South Africa’s continuing inequality, between rich and poor, men and women, different races, those with weapons and those without it, has continued to fuel the violence of our past.

The South African state and many of its apparatus, whether the police or service departments, in spite of the country being a democracy, has in many cases retained the violent culture of the apartheid state, with the occupants now black, instead of white. Public servants, whether at home affairs or the police, are invariably rude, often treat ordinary citizens dismissively.

Large numbers of South African groups feel alienated. Many South Africans nurse suppressed anger. South Africa has the largest unemployment load in the world, particularly young people. Blacks, who are not politically and socially connected – whether to the ANC, EFF and increasingly the DA, are excluded and angry. Some white South Africans have suppressed anger because the “blacks” are in “charge”. In the rural areas under control of autocratic African traditional leaders, black women have little rights under the so-called “customary” law.

Everyday daily racial slights, so commonplace, that white South Africans are not even aware of it, builds up anger among many blacks. Daily shocking revelations of corruption in government, business and trusted institutions such as religious organisations, auditing firms and medical doctors, well up anger of ordinary law-abiding citizens.

While ordinary citizens struggle to pay mortgages and rent, feed families and pay school and transport fees, elected and government officials use public money for personal enrichment as it was monopoly money. Not surprisingly upstanding citizens struggling to make ends meet are anger. There has to be consequences for violent behaviour. If there are no costs to individual violent behaviour, it will become the norm.

Often those who mete out violence – powerful criminals, gangsters and connected politicians – appear to be getting away with it. Powerful crime bosses, traditional leaders and political leaders who are violent must be punished as severely as ordinary unconnected citizens involved in violence. Most South Africans come from broken families, so it is very unlikely they will be taught non-violence lessons at home. This means that schools, higher education institutions and workplace will have to teach non-violence to pupils, students and employees.

Leaders of all spheres – political, business, religious, traditional and community leaders – must model new non-violent, tolerant and caring behaviours. Religious organisations, membership organisations, such as trade unions, and community organisations, will also have to teach their members non-violence methods of dispute resolution. Religious spaces such as churches will have to at the pulpit do the same.

Political leaders and parties must eschew violence, whether physical or in language. Political parties must expel leaders and members who are violent and use violent language. Traditional, religious and communal cultures must cull violent customs. The idea that violence is a solution to solving problems must be socially discouraged, by civil society, families and communities. Government at all levels must govern more caringly, honestly and in the widest interest of all citizens.

William Gumede is chairman of the Democracy Works Foundation ( and author of South Africa in BRICS (Tafelberg).