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S. Africa seeks to combat its violence problem

September 21, 2019

Criminality seems to have become an established part of society in the rainbow nation. Murder, rape and xenophobia have painted a dark picture of South Africa. The country is searching for solutions — but will they work?

Protesters in South Africa demonstrating against violence toward women
Image: Reuters/S. Hisham

Where does violence have its origins? The answer to this question could help combat the high rate of violent crime, including the recent xenophobic attacks, that has been experienced in South Africa for years.

The country is now searching for the roots of that violence — and is starting in South African homes.

On Wednesday, the Constitutional Court of South Africa upheld a High Court ruling that spanking children is a violation of the constitution.

In 2017, the South African High Court made it illegal for parents to castigate children through physical punishment such as caning or flogging.

Beating children as a religious freedom

Some parents, however, do not agree with the judgement.

Daniela Ellerbeck from the organization Freedom of Religion South Africa (FOR SA) says the ruling strips parents of their rights. 

"There has been a serious erosion of both parental rights of parents to determine what is in the best interest of their children and for them to raise their children in accordance with their own moral convictions and beliefs," she says.

Children playing in Nkaneng slum
Spanking children is now illegal in South AfricaImage: Getty Images/AFP/O. Andersen

Parental violence 'ignorance'

But this argument is dismissed by Duduzile Skhosana from Save the Children South Africa.

"We know that most parents are upset about this ruling because of ignorance, because they don't know," she says.

The problem is the belief that physical punishment makes children behave, Skhosana told DW.

"We all were brought up believing that a stick will make children walk upright, not understanding that children will stay calm and do anything not because they understand right and wrong, but because they are afraid."

And this violence at home shapes the character of a child, she says.

"When children go out, they will be more violent. We see how violence is escalating in the country," Skhosana says.

100 rapes per day

South Africa is, indeed, struggling to deal with a rise in murder and rape.

Sexual offences went up by 4.6% this year, according to a 2018 report released by Statistics South Africa.

A woman is murdered every three hours in the country, which is five times the global average. Some 2,700 women and 1,000 children were murdered by men last year, and at least 100 rapes were reported daily.

Protest against violence against women
Violence against women is common in South AfricaImage: AFP/R. Bosch

"This level of violence has been going on, but I think it's going up more because it's being reported more than it was," Loren Landau from the African Centre for Migration and Society (ACMS) told DW.

Violence has come to be the norm and "should have been addressed a long time ago," he said.

Latest cases include a student from Cape Town who was lured into a post office and beaten to death after being raped. Another victim was a 14-year old schoolgirl who was raped and died after her head was smashed in.

President Cyril Ramaphosa has called an urgent joint sitting of Parliament, pledging $75 million (€60 million) for measures that include improving the criminal justice system and providing better care for victims.

He said that South Africa was one of "the most unsafe places in the world to be a woman."

'Violence will return'

However, violence does not stop there.

 According to South African police data, more than 21,000 murders were reported in the whole country between April 2018 and March 2019, an increase of 1.4% compared with 2017/2018.

This is why around 1,300 soldiers from the South African National Defence Force have been deployed on the streets of Cape Town's townships as part of "Operation Lockdown," a campaign against a surge in gang violence and murders. Now, Ramaphosa has extended the deployment by another six months.

Man holding up jacket
Gang violence is nothing unusual in Cape TownImage: DW/S. Möhl

But while the government has called the operation a success, Landau does not believe that this is going to be a long-term solution.

"The evidence is that the military has done very little to shift the murder rate. And I think some of it is because they're addressing it just through brute force rather than looking at the personal and structural incentives that lead people to use violence," Landau says.

Arrests can be made, but military intervention will not change the system that produces the violence, according to Landau.

"And so, eventually, violence will return," he says.

Fact-finding mission for xenophobia

Just as problematic are the xenophobic attacks that have caught the whole world's attention over the past few weeks. Twelve people died in the violence that gripped parts of Johannesburg — 10 South Africans and two Zimbabweans.

Mobs attacked foreign-owned businesses. For many years, foreigners have been made responsible for the high rate of unemployment among South Africans.

Nigeria and other African countries have condemned the attacks. The incidents have strained the relationship between Nigeria and South Africa, and almost 500 Nigerians left South Africa amid the violence.

Ramaphosa announced that a fact-finding mission led by two former African heads of state would investigate the causes of recent violent attacks and acknowledged that South Africa was facing a serious crisis of violence and intolerance.

'State only reacts to fire'

Looking at the rates of violent crime, it would be very hard to dispute the fact that South Africa is a "very violent society," Landau says.

"Does that mean that there's a culture of violence? I think there is certainly a propensity for violence." he says. 

Men, one with a stick, protesting against foreign firms in South Africa
Xenophobic attacks have been rocking South AfricaImage: picture alliance/dpa/K. Ludbrook

He believes the causes lie in the past.

 "It is a population that has been violently traumatized by its history and continues to be traumatized by massive inequality. The violence in some ways becomes self-perpetuating," he says.

Another cause could be the survival instinct, according to Landau.

"Men are expected and expect themselves to be providers, to earn, to be the leaders. Those who are not able to fulfill those roles feel threatened and often turn their aggression on others, whether it's women, children or migrants," Landau says.

New perspectives

Selby Xinwa of the Centre for the Study of Violence and Reconciliation disagrees.

"I do not necessarily think that South Africa is much more violent than other African countries," he says.

But, he says, the state responds to incidents only "when people start looting and burning buildings. That has been the issue: Whenever the state sees fire, it then starts to react to the situation. Inequality, unemployment and poverty, for instance, are some of the things that the government must be able to address," Xinwa says.

Xinwa feels that what is needed now is a perspective for a brighter future.

"What we need is an opportunity for people to have hope and see that there is a sense, that there is a possibility of getting ahead, that there is a possibility of going forward," he says.

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DW - Silja Fröhlich
Silja Fröhlich is a German journalist and radio host.