As South Africans we are subjected daily to multiple accounts of violence – in the mainstream media, our own social media platforms and personal accounts from acquaintances, friends and family. Inevitably and simply for the sake of our own health and sanity we insulate ourselves against these accounts. We become less sensitive to the significance of violence for our country and for ourselves — the citizens who inhabit it. Two recent high-profile events challenge our response afresh.
At the 2nd School Safety Summit, held on 12 October 2018, Minister of Basic Education Angie Motshekga noted the recent murder of a teacher and the ongoing high levels of violence against learners in schools and in communities. She stressed the importance of safety for children in both contexts, which enables them to learn effectively. She also called for a collective response to teach children that there are other ways of resolving conflict, showing them that human life is precious.
On 1 November 2018 at the Gender-Based Violence and Femicide Summit, President Cyril Ramaphosa made a particularly telling point. “Survivors of sexual violence and abuse often live with these scars for a very long time. And when abuse occurs in a situation of trust, in the family or the church, the sense of betrayal is indeed intensified.”
At the same gathering, the Minister of Justice and Correctional Affairs, Michael Masutha suggested, according to Daily Maverick, that the following fundamental questions needed to be answered:
- Why does this terrible phenomenon manifest itself in such an ugly fashion in our country more than in any other and to the extent to which it does?
- Why is it that a significant number of the sexual crimes and femicides that come before our courts occur among family members, friends and acquaintances and known members of the community?
- Do any specific structural factors in our society fuel the crisis more than they do anywhere else?
There is a rich and growing literature that sheds light on Minister Masutha’s questions.
First, he is correct in singling out South Africa with reference to the disproportionate prevalence of violent crime. According to the Centre for the Study of Violence and Reconciliation, we “suffer from exceptionally high rates of violent crime, (though we are not absolutely certain that there are not more countries with similar, or higher, levels of violent crime).” South Africa has an extremely violent older and recent history of violence and that violence generates its own cycle.
We need to note the impact that centuries of informal and formal policies have had on breaking down family life and building a culture of violence. This obviously impacts on the ability of the family as an institution to care for its members, to nurture them as physically, emotionally, psychologically and morally healthy members of society.
Also, a range of cultural and religious beliefs legitimate coercive male behaviour against women and children. From this perspective, it becomes readily apparent that all violence — structural and inter-personal — is related.
A number of scholars believe that a clear correlation exists between those in prison and those who grew up in poverty and/or abusive homes and experienced limited opportunities, constant humiliation and little chance to gain respect.
Furthermore disparities in income and wealth between the rich and the poor are the most powerful indicators of the homicide rates in any city, state or country. In South Africa’s situation this has led to an endemic culture of violence. This is further characterised by a high use of firearms and sharp objects and a culture of impunity. Seemingly an excellent example of the concept of the “structures of sin” referred to in Catholic Social Teaching.
The scale of this violence is indeed overwhelming. An April 2018 longitudinal study by the Centre of Excellence in Human Development at Wits University shows that 99% of all children born in 1990 in the Johannesburg-Soweto metropolitan area experience violence at home, at school and in their communities before they turn 18. Across the country, one in three children in South Africa is hurt by a parent or caregiver and one in five experiences sexual abuse.
The Institute for Security Studies is launching a campaign calling for the creation of safe communities, protective loving families, respectful, positive classrooms and orderly schools. They make a special call for support from leaders who believe in non-violence, including ministers, faith leaders, political party activists, teachers, unions, parents and learners. Obviously this is essentially a long-term perspective and commitment.
But how do we respond to individual situations of abuse and violence now?
We know, from common sense and empirical research, that the criminal justice system and its tools of due process and punishment are not particularly suitable for dealing with interpersonal violence. Still, we continue to call for abhorrent acts to be denounced with severe punishment. Again, we know that violence (for what else is severe punishment?) only leads to more violence. Helpfully, the Constitutional Court has pointed out that when we denounce violence we need to do so in a way that reflects the values to which we aspire and not the values of the behaviour we are denouncing.
Restorative justice and conflict transformation offer a compellingly hopeful and comprehensive vision and set of values in the face of the frightening realities detailed here. As a way of thinking about violence, crime and justice, it provides a more constructive point of departure and direction than the usual punitive and retributive approach. It also provides practical tools that help perpetrators acknowledge the harm they have caused and how they can accept responsibility for their violent actions by making things right and changing their behaviour.
These tools support the possibility of some degree of reconciliation and healing. These have been successfully applied for decades in the criminal justice system and schools and are now being applied in previously unimagined contexts such as sexual misconduct, hate crime and gender-based violence.
Research conducted into those who were party to incidents of hate that participated in some form of dialogue found numerous successful outcomes. The main reasons reflected for this were the fact that they were able to participate in the resolution of their own incident, that they were given a platform to express their voice and that in many situations the offending behaviour had since ceased.
The researcher points out that while these impacts are unexpectedly hopeful they were not a ‘cure-all’ or ‘magic bullet’ that reduced all anxiety, fear or anger, or ensured that all wrongful behaviour ceased. He does however point out that this does not mean that these approaches should not be used. We should adopt a learning approach, seeking to improve our levels of expertise and increasing the effectiveness and success of these tools. Restorative justice and victim-offender mediation have also been explicitly endorsed by the US Conference of Catholic Bishops in 2000.
Looking for opportunities to advance conflict transformation and restorative approaches, as we observe International Restorative Justice Week and thereafter the 16 Days of Activism against Gender-Based Violence Campaign, will make excellent contributions to these campaigns.