Our children are killers and we need to change this

“Boy, 3, dies after being tied up, stoned and rolled down a hill.”

This was the headline on a South African news website on Monday morning. The two people who killed him are aged seven and eight.

Two weeks ago, Thoriso Themane (27), was murdered by a group of 15-year-olds.

Children have become killers. This is telling us something that we have to take seriously about our society and how we raise our children.

As with the murder of Themane, the murder of this little boy on March 10 has shocked the country. And the chorus begins to swell. “See what happens when you prohibit corporal punishment?”, “All they need is a darned good hiding” and “Children have too many rights these days.”

Would that it was that easy.

Corporal punishment has been banned in schools for 20 years — yet up to 73% of schoolchildren are still being hit at school. More than 60% of parents hit their children and more than 75% approve of hitting children.

So, we can’t really lay the blame for out-of-control children at the door of prohibition. But where can we lay it?

As South Africans, we have to take responsibility on some level at least for being one of the most violent countries in the world outside of a war zone. Why also we have this terrible “honour” and what should we be doing about it?

The answer as to why we have such a violent society is complex and rooted in our past and present, as a society and as individuals. We have had centuries of dividing and dehumanising the majority of the population based on colour, deeply patriarchal social constructs of masculinity and femininity, the glorification of toxic masculinity characterised by violence and control, intergenerational poverty and glaring inequality. And there is wide acceptance for the notion that bigger, stronger people can hurt those who are smaller and weaker with impunity.

These beliefs and ideals coalesce into the murky context that provides for people to hurt other people, sometimes fatally, as in the cases here, and believe that their actions are justified. It underpins the enormous sense of futility and frustration that characterises much of the impetus to violence in our country.

What these children did to another person was inhuman and vile. But they did not spring fully formed from some dark abyss to go out and wreak havoc. They were schooled in doing so by everything around them for all the years that they have been alive.

How could this tragedy have been prevented? It is important to understand that the answer to this question is as complex and layered as the environment it is trying to address.

There are so many things that need to be done.

• Poverty and inequality are lacerating huge numbers of our population and not nearly enough is being done to address these twin scourges;

• Social constructions of masculinity as active, in control and aggressive, though overtly criticised, are actually societally condoned (even encouraged) for the most part, until they become “extreme”;

• The pressure of being the breadwinner in a family is contributing to deep levels of frustration as marginalised men are unable to live up to expectations;

• Children and young people are not being taught nor are they seeing adult role models who behave responsibly and appropriately in situations of differences of opinion or conflict;

• Levels of violence against children in South Africa are particularly high, and the child homicide rate is double the global average. The genesis of violent behaviour often lies in the home in which one grew up, where children witness violence on a regular basis and eventually see this as the norm, and therefore “normal”; and

• Parenting seems not to be equipping children to be empathic citizens who understand and are protective of the human rights of everyone.

There is much to do, but we need to start with children. Of course, repairing the damage after horrific incidents, such as those noted here, is also essential work, but it will not prevent the violence from happening in the first place. To do that, we need to change childhood.

Instead of corruptly siphoning billions from the national fiscus, that money should have been put into ensuring that every child has the best possible “first 1 000 days” (the period from conception to the age of two). Every attempt should be made to recover as much of the corruptly spent funds as possible, and these should be directed at making sure that:

• Every pregnant mother is healthy and properly fed;

• The birth and immediate aftermath are well managed;

• Children are adequately nourished, loved and protected during their earliest years;

• No developing foetus or young child is exposed to violence in any form (including corporal punishment); and

• Every child under six has access to quality early childhood development services.

This is a long-term vision to undo the wrongs of centuries, but it is the only way that we can look forward to a time when violence is not our default reaction to any situation or against any person who does not agree with us.

Carol Bower is director of the Peace Centre.

Carol Bower
Carol Bower
Carol Bower is director of the Peace Centre.

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