The notion of 'the other' may drive violence in SA

Bringing up children in happy and supportive family environment will contribute to a society free from violence. (Soul City)

Bringing up children in happy and supportive family environment will contribute to a society free from violence. (Soul City)

In 1994, the 'miracle of the transition' gave South Africa a chance to break with its divided past and usher in the 'rainbow nation'. But what happened to the rainbow nation? Is it possible that the same diversity that was touted as the foundation of a democratic and open society based on the values of freedom, human dignity and equality has become South Africa's Archilles heel? In this article, I would like to argue that there are several flaws in the rainbow nation which partly account for the widespread violence we see in South Africa today.

Psychologists and other researchers on mass violence have long established the role played by the concept of 'the other' in acts of violence. From the Holocaust to the Rwanda genocide, there is strong evidence that the starting point for violence is usually when the would-be perpetrator stops perceiving the would-be victim as a fellow human being but rather as 'the other who is different from me'.

The amplification of differences enables the would-be victim to be 'objectified', that is, turned into an object worth of violation and even elimination. Violence is endemic in South Africa today because people find it very easy to identify and amplify differences, to turn their targets into objects for violation, domination or elimination.

Historically, this notion of 'the other' was at the core of the apartheid system and the violence that accompanied it. If you were different from me, you became 'the other' and therefore a legitimate target of violence in all its manifestations: physical, emotional, psychological, social, cultural etcetera. Apartheid is now buried in the deep annals of history.

But unfortunately, the notion of 'the other' did not disappear with the miracle of the transition. In as far as it remains the most significant attempt to reconcile a divided nation, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) will forever be a laudable milestone in the birth of the rainbow nation.

However, many have questioned the effectiveness of the TRC in healing the wounds inflicted by apartheid. Did the process really heal them or merely buried them? Is it possible that those unhealed wounds have been festering and are showing themselves in the form of the endemic interpersonal violence we see today? It is now clear that the cracks from South Africa's divided past cannot continue to be papered. The South Africa we live in today is still very much shaped more by the very sharp awareness of differences than by the sense of shared values and dreams.

Race, gender, ethnicity, language, nationality, sexual orientation, political affiliation and social class continue to be the deep faults that threaten to tear South Africa apart. Lasting solutions to the problem of violence will lie in finding ways of reconciling these differences, rather than continue to merely celebrate them as the making of a rainbow nation. I will use the following four examples to illustrate my point.

Firstly, no matter how uncomfortable it makes us, race is still one of the most divisive factors that define both social relations and social class in South Africa today. It is all noble to strive for a non-racial society but what exactly does non-racialism mean? While studies on inequality have shown growing disparities within rather than between racial groups, another study recenetly published has revealed that 72% of the top management positions in the country are still occupied by white people. Is it then possible to ignore the racial disparities and their impact on social relationships?

In his book 'A Future for the Excluded', Chilean Chlodomir de Morais said: "Our world is divided between those who do not sleep and those who do not eat. Those who do not sleep are afraid that those who do not eat will break through their high security walls."

He might as well have been writing about present day South Africa, where race based resentment is still a reality and it contributes to the widespread violence. A few years ago I listened to a phone-in radio discussion where a man who said he was a robber confessed that "when we do robberies, we are more likely to kill or rape the victim if he or she is white than when he or she is black".

Secondly, 'otherness' is widely reflected in relations between men and women, boys and girls. In patriarchal South Africa, boys do not grow up to assert their identity independently from girls but rather in relation to their domination over girls. The problematic stereotype of a dominant male figure continues to be embedded in our children's personalities as they grow up. Young boys are socialised into a sharp awareness of their position of power in relation to girls. They learn that girls are the less powerful 'others', that a man has the final say, cannot be denied what he wants and has the right to get what he wants from the 'other', even if it means using violence to do so.

Thirdly, 'makwerekwere' is not just a derogatory term used to describe foreigners in South Africa. It is used to amplify the 'otherness' of foreign nationals which turns them into objects that can be violated with impunity. Stories abound of community members standing by and watching while a foreign national is attacked by vigilantes.

This becomes possible where the victim is perceived to be 'not one of us' and therefore not deserving of their protection. However, there are cases in the Eastern Cape where community leaders have stood up to emphasize common values of humanity and therefore communities have stood up to defend foreign nationals under attack. In other cases, the police are complicit to the violence. By not according foreign nationals equal protection of the law, they tend to legitimize illegal vigilante actions and therefore worsen the web of violence.

Fourthly, sexual orientation is disturbingly becoming a mark of 'otherness'. Despite laws prohibiting discrimination based on sexual orientation, many South Africans still regard homosexuality as an aberration or a sickness. The phenomenon of corrective rape is not just a result of people believing that God created sex for man and woman.

Rather, it is the manifestation of the notion of 'otherness' which fails to appreciate differences and therefore concludes: I am heterosexual, you are not therefore you are not normal, your rights can be violated and you must be cured.

These are just some of the possible explanations of the disturbing levels of violence in South Africa. There are also countless possible solutions to this social ill, among them the constitutional project. This underscores the vision of a democratic and open society based on the values of freedom, human dignity and equality. However, someone once commented that you can legislate human behaviour, but you cannot legislate morality and values. Lasting solutions to the problem of violence will, to a large extent, come from dialogue in communities that amplifies shared values and dreams while confronting, appreciating and reconciling differences.

Soul City Institute's groundbreaking Kwanda initiative is a good example of harnessing the positive energy of the nation to emphasize shared values while appreciating the differences. Kwanda, which literally means to grow, was the first TV reality show of its kind which was flighted on SABC1 in 2009. Over a 13 week period, the show profiled five communities across South Africa working to make their communities work better, look better and feel better, in the process inspiring a whole nation to organize themselves for a unified approach to social transformation.

For the greater part of 2012, the community of Kwakwatsi in Free State was in turmoil as community members were embroiled in conflict over management of the funds they won in the Kwanda competition. Through a concerted mediation and reconciliation effort facilitated through Kwanda, the community managed to find each other and reconcile their differences.

In the Tjakastad community in Mpumalanga, the Community Policing Forum introduced through Kwanda has managed to significantly bring down the levels of crime and violence.

The same stories have been narrated from the other Kwanda communities about how they have all managed to help their communities to look better, work better and feel better despite the challenges of differences and conflicts. All attest to the importance of togetherness rather than 'otherness'. Other countries like Brazil have since expressed interest to use the Kwanda approach to mobilize the nation's energy towards achieving national goals like the millennium development goals.

I believe Kwanda can help South Africa find a way out of the current crisis of violence occasioned by the weak levels of social cohesion.

Innocent Nkata is a social justice activist and is the Head of Social Mobilisation at Soul City: Institute for Health and Development Communication

Although this article has been made possible by the Mail & Guardian's advertisers, content and photographs were sourced independently by the M&G supplements editorial team. It forms part of a larger supplement.



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