Glitz, guns and Pistorius: what haunts white South African men

The country's brittle, edgy atmosphere has its roots in apartheid, argues Marlene van Niekerk


AS SOUTH AFRICA, in election week, sees the restart of the trial of Oscar Pistorius for the murder of his girlfriend Reeva Steenkamp, my perception is that our society is experiencing an overall paroxysm of social aggression.

No population group is exempt from the psychological and physical violence arising from this general social tenor. What is truly shocking is that the victims often belong to the category of the vulnerable and the utterly defenceless: women, children, old people, the disabled, the socially marginalised and the isolated.

On average, 45 people are murdered per day in South Africa, of which about a third are children. A disconcertingly high percentage of those are toddlers or even infants.

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Afrikaaner men at breaking point

I am a writer, and so am offering here my personal insight and experience. My feeling is that a large percentage of South African males of whatever hue, class or political persuasion are suffering from extreme forms of stress.

In the higher-income groups of the politically “disempowered” white Afrikaans community this amounts to vast reservoirs of underlying resentment, fear and anger.

The white male has nowhere to go with his obsolete patriarchal baggage except maybe to the shooting range or the rugby match. At best, this becomes manifest in a general attitude of suspicion, distrust, barely suppressed aggression and a readiness to defend bodily integrity with every means at hand.

At the worst it flares up during incidents of road-rage, temper tantrums and public fisticuffs or racist shooting sprees and family murders.

Shadow of a proto-fascist state

In the case of traditionally brought-up middle-class Afrikaners socially formed during the apartheid, one must add to the mix the effects of living in the shadow of a proto-fascist state and a uniquely effective state church, the Dutch Reformed, inside a well-oiled educational propaganda machine.

It was these three ideological state apparatuses – a militarised police state, public school and national church – that inculcated racial superiority, god-sanctioned political dominance, male prowess and female self-abasement. Through them, a type of psychologically un-centred and immature individual was produced. This individual was morally weak, intellectually paralysed, deeply self-censured and easily dominated.

In males, this took the form of overbearing militarised machismo, of which the associated social practices upheld the white nationalist state’s values. In females, it led to a cringing masochistic subservience, exclusively bound to the hearth and the crib.

After the fall of apartheid, when these institutions and this entire machinery of social control fell apart, a huge emptiness assailed the hearts of many. There was nothing much to stopper it except rabidly competitive, highly displayful consumerism - and yes, sport. Glitz, bling, beef, jocks, chicks, guns and wheels, the spectacle of the high life, became for many the only image of desired existence in post-apartheid South Africa.

These are the social contexts in which Oscar Pistorius grew up and found himself hailed as the handicapped miracle boy who through his own exorbitant physical and mental efforts and punishing routines of endurance overcame the worst of odds.

Add to that his precarious ambulant condition and an upbringing in a less than fully functional family. As well as the early loss of his mother, and an absent father, he grew up under the adage: “never fail”. One could expect that, in spite of the huge international success, something would give at some or other point.

Historical roots

In a highly unequal class and race-based society, the reasons for South Africa’s aura of violence would obviously need to reflect that. Any analysis aiming to develop a single, all-encompassing diagnosis of the endemic violence in South Africa has to take into account many different aspects.

Dutch and British colonial subjugation led to the irreparable dispossession and uprooting of native inhabitants and their brutalisation through the effects of poverty. Under the apartheid economy, black family structures disintegrated and the male migrant worker population was enslaved.

Parental authority fell into disrepair during the 1976 Soweto revolt of school children against apartheid. The physical and mental development of children was impaired through self-reinforcing cycles of bad mothering in destitute communities. Conservative and punitive models of education meant that oppressive, abusive and authoritarian behaviour could easily be internalised by those on the receiving end.

Unwholesome images of both men and women were constructed under both black and white chauvinistic nationalisms. Both traditional and Christian religions apportioned men and women into vastly asymmetrical gender roles.

Add to this the current economic stagnation in South Africa, insupportable frustration with rising unemployment, social immobility and the growing disparity between rich and poor. Combine this with a lack of proper education and the moral decrepitude among the ruling political elite.

The effect is that of an almost palpable, electrically pulsed and constantly morphing pressure running through the social fabric, unsettling the individual’s social and moral orientation. And all of this as South Africans go to the polls on May 7 in a presidential election.

Life goes on

It might sound from the above that there is no normality in South Africa. But somehow there is - or at least, the semblance of it.

People get on. They talk and socialise, they eat and drink, they enjoy entertainment and each other’s company, they even produce art, they love and struggle to make life’s ends meet as people do all over the world.

But it is a brittle, edgy and unreal normality, one that I picture as situated precariously under a slow invisible roulette constantly circling around us in the air, the dice clanging in the metal ranges, until they fasten onto the latest victim.

At any moment the ruling tensions might burst forth from the luxurious facades behind which the rich ensconce themselves, or on the streets where people move together minding their business, or from the noisy and messy alleys in the townships where one never knows when a stray bullet might find one or a knife might flash from the dark.

This is a country in a state of low-frequency internal siege involving rich and poor alike. Still, but for how long? The enemy is not external but amongst us, in us, he scares us all, and we all listen out for him in the night.

Marlene van Niekerk is Professor at the Department of Afrikaans and Dutch at Stellenbosch University. This article was originally published at The Conversation.

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