The Illusions of Sanctuary and the Weight of the Past: Notes on violence and gender in South Africa

The Illusions of Sanctuary and the Weight of the Past: Notes on violence and gender in South Africa

Simpson, G. & Kraak, G. (1998). The Illusions of Sanctuary and the Weight of the Past: Notes on violence and gender in South Africa. In Development Update, Vol. 2, No. 2.


Graeme Simpson & Gerald Kraak

In Development Update, Vol. 2, No. 2, 1998.

Graeme Simpson is a founder and former Director of the Centre for the Study of Violence and Reconciliation.

Gerald Kraak is the former Deputy Director of Interfund.

It is axiomatic that violence against women in South Africa is endemic. Most observers attribute it to the disintegration of the social fabric under apartheid and during the violent upheavals of the political transition. But Graeme Simpson and Gerald Kraak argue that while the experience of apartheid may have exacerbated the levels of violence against women, it has been an enduring feature of the social order – equally prevalent in pre-colonial and contemporary societies. They also contend that skewed gender relations are not only expressed through violence against women in particular, but are an aspect of all social violence. Violence has become a vehicle for men to assert their authority, which they perceive to have been undermined by economic and social change. Unless we recognise that this is what violent men are trying to do, and unless strategies to redress gender inequality include engaging with the insecurities of younger men in particular, the violence may not diminish.

Damned Lies and Statistics

Men's violence against women is the most extreme expression of the gender inequality that underscores social relations in contemporary South Africa. Excluding countries which are at war, South Africa presently has the highest level of violence against women in the world. Studies in the last five years have produced differing and sometimes contradictory statistics, but ill reinforce the impression that violence against women is endemic. Some suggest that one in four women is likely to be battered by her male partner in her lifetime. And that every year 1.2 million women are sexually assaulted. That is 3,079 rapes a day, 128 every hour, one every 28 seconds. The incidence of rape in South Africa is twice as high as in any other country for which statistics are available.

Yet it is possible that there is even more violence against women than these statistics show. Researchers and analysts here have relied on one of two sources for data – the South African Police Services' (SAPS) records and independent research done by the voluntary sector – each with their own limitations.

SAPS statistics have been associated with significant under-reporting. The reluctance of black women, in particular, to report acts of gender-related violence stems from the lack of public confidence in the police inherited from the apartheid era, when the police played a largely repressive role in black communities. Under-reporting has been compounded by the difficulties SAPS has had in adapting to the transition: there are not enough human and other resources to effectively tackle the problem of violence against women, and morale is low.

A more acute problem is how sexual violence is perceived. Crimes involving sexual violence are commonly regarded as "crimes of shame" – and this is not an exclusively South African phenomenon. The victims are blamed or shamed, and so feel responsible and guilty for the violence and do not report it.

The manifold dependencies of many women on their male partners (most often the perpetrators of domestic violence) also inhibit reporting. Patriarchy and the nuclear family create the dependencies which include economic dependency, dependency for shelter, and dependency for support for and access to children. Many of the relationships which govern these dependencies fall outside of the scope of the law and are regulated in the private domain of the family and extended family. The result is that women tend to be trapped in abusive relationships and would hardly contemplate calling on the police for support.

The Home as Torture Chamber

Another factor which disguises the magnitude of abuse is that much of it takes place in the private realm of the home, the place that ostensibly provides sanctuary and safety, but which is so often a torture chamber for large numbers of women. Official statistics often do not take into account the way in which the domestic environment allows for repeat victimisation and sustained relationships of abuse. In the police statistics it is difficult to distinguish repeated abuse (which may be recorded as a single offence) from individual acts of violence.

Information based on women presenting themselves to hospitals or clinics for treatment are also unlikely to be accurate and for similar reasons.

Voluntary Sector Research on Violence

The other source of information on gender-related violence has traditionally been the voluntary sector – in particular the women's movement – which, precisely because of the problems of under-reporting to the police, has carried out alternative research to try and establish a more accurate picture. But much of this research is methodologically flawed. What voluntary sector organisations have tended to do is speculate on the under-reporting to SAPS and make educated – and sometimes less-educated – guesses about the real extent of violence. Figures provided by SAPS are extrapolated by an assumed and untested percentage of under-reporting and by guesstimates of how relationships of dependency might inhibit reporting. The voluntary sector has therefore provided sometimes conflicting statistics not based on empirical and scientific research. But well grounded empirical surveys are likely to encounter many of the same problems associated with SAPS statistics.

The most useful vehicle for more accurate research is victimisation surveys based on samples of the population. The difficulty is how to carry them out. They are usually conducted through street or household interviews and are a useful tool for evaluating police statistics, but in relation to domestic violence they have tended to fall short. Women are unlikely to talk about violence in the household surveys, where the perpetrators may very well be present, and street surveys are equally likely to encounter the "crimes of shame" problem. The challenge for the voluntary sector – and many women's organisations are struggling to take it up – is to develop methodologies, research skills and tools which will obviate some of these problems.

The National Characteristics of Gender-related Violence

The extent of violence against women in South Africa has understandably become a growing source of public disquiet. It has been interpreted in two ways. One view has it that gender-related violence is a symptom of a society in which the social fabric has disintegrated: a consequence of brutalisation by both apartheid repression and the violence of the street battalions of the anti-apartheid struggle, the latter being necessary but nevertheless dehumanising. This view assumes that increased levels of gender-related violence are related to the recent past. Others argue that gender-related violence is much more deeply rooted in all of the cultures that make up present-day South Africa. It may have been exacerbated by apartheid, but it cannot be blamed on apartheid.

They argue that if we accept that gender-related violence is a consequence of apartheid we deny its extraordinary prevalence in societies which have not experienced apartheid. Though levels may vary, gender-related violence is a phenomenon in all societies, as common in "third" world countries as it is in developed ones. At the same time, they have warned against assuming that violence against women is a post-apartheid phenomenon. The imperatives of the anti-apartheid struggle undermined the ability of black communities to look critically at themselves and their past. The advent of constitutional democracy has opened up space for researchers and other analysts to scrutinise communities in a divided society in more objective and penetrating ways than the struggle allowed. And this has included looking at gender-related violence This newer knowledge has led us to counter the assumption that gender-related violence has grown in the post- apartheid era. The growth of a coalition of women's organisations to combat gender-related violence, unfettered by the constraints of the anti-apartheid struggle and its imperatives of collective loyalty, has also placed the issue more firmly on the political agenda than was previously possible.

The Continuity of Violence and the Myths of the Past

The history of pre-colonial society was devalued and distorted by apartheid and so there has been an understandable inclination within the broader anti-apartheid and nationalist discourse to interpret the pre-colonial era in "positive" ways, and to balance competing and contested understandings of the past. Some historians have warned that in comprehending that past we should not indulge in a historic variation of cultural relativism and apply the subjective norms of the present to the cultural "realities" of the past. Thus gender related violence is seen as endemic, and is deemed unacceptable, in contemporary cultural discourse, as a consequence of the struggles of the women's movement. But it has been argued that this understanding cannot be uncritically applied to the past.

To understand violence against women, we need to recognise and accept tha it was a feature of the pre-colonial tradition, and has continuity and resonance in the present. Research is emerging which reveals that in pre-colonial traditional African cultures – which are often romanticised as democratic and having been infused with the values of "ubuntu" – there were high levels woman abuse. In particular, research on migrancy is throwing up findings which challenge conventional understandings of the past.

Migration as Resistance

Established research has linked the movement of people off the land and into urban, waged employment to the destruction of pre-colonial economies through the imposition of poll- and head-taxes and other measures, and unquestionably these were critical ingredients in forcing peasants into migrancy and wage labour. But the new research suggests that the impact of the colonial intervention was uneven across different communities and occurred at different times. For example, peasant communities in the Western Transvaal remained cohesive for much longer periods than in some other parts of the country. What is interesting are the studies which track significant patterns of female migrancy long before the destruction of peasant economies. The literature suggests this was a means of escaping from oppressive patriarchal relationships in pre-colonial societies: from marriage, from rural labour, and from the abuse associated with these.

The power of the contemporary women's movement has been to recognise that even though violence against women may have been socially sanctioned and seen as a cultural norm in past societies, we denigrate women by failing to recognise the extent to which there was active resistance to the patriarchy of pre-colonial societies.

The research hints at a hidden history of women doing all they could to escape from oppression even before the colonial destruction of the subsistence economy. It is a powerful counter to the entrenched ways in which we have come to understand our history. The primacy given to colonial intervention in displacing people from the land has tended to mask the intricate oppressive relations which played themselves out in pre-colonial societies.

Feminism and Liberation

The liberation movement may have been complicit in hiding this history and the extent of gender-related violence in the past. The women's movement in exile was conservative and rejected feminism as a western, unAfrican concept that was being imposed on it. Feminism was seen to be disruptive of the imperative that women "stand by their men" in the front ranks of struggle by providing support, succour and child care. Many of us will recall the days of the United Democratic Front (UDF) or the solidarity movements in Western Europe when, at rallies, the women were thanked for providing the food and looking after the children. In the dominant discourses of the liberation movement the complexity of gender inequality was not recognised. Feminist debate may not have been openly suppressed, but it was sublimated to the intrinsic logic of the strategy for liberation: the first struggle was for the liberation of the nation; the second for the liberation of the working class, and, at best, third down the line might come the struggle for the liberation of women.

It is only since the transition that a more open feminist debate has taken hold, in the political parties and other formations that made up the liberation movement. In re-examining our history, we may need to critically re-explore the liberation period and acknowledge the women abuse that may have taken place within the structures of the movement. We need, also, to acknowledge that debate and discussion about the issue of gender was contested in the movement. Feminists had to fight for the feminist movement's place in the liberation struggle, just as they have elsewhere in society.

"Gender-blindness" and Masculine Identity

In our attempts to understand gender-related violence we have tended to isolate it from the violence and conflict which have been, and continue to be, a feature of the political transition in South Africa. We have failed to scrutinise these other forms of violence through a gender lens, which may also be an expression of gender relations, a way of articulating the differential exercise of power by men and women. In looking at crime, gang-related violence, violence in the migrant worker hostels, the "taxi wars" – in fact at the whole spectrum of issues that we regard as social problems – we may fail to recognise the extent to which they too are theatres, not so much for violence against women, but for the assertion of a destructive and anti-social masculine identity.

The Centre for the Study of Violence (CSVR) in Johannesburg is presently researching how and why such large numbers of juveniles come to be incarcerated. They are the majority of violent offenders. What emerges from the research is how central the assertion of a masculine identity is to criminal violence, whether it is hijacking a car, breaking into a house, a violent assault, gang violence, or "jack rolling" (gang rape). The research suggests that many such young men experience the social upheaval of the apartheid and post-apartheid eras, and the associated feelings of powerlessness and marginalisation, as emasculation. Violence is a way of symbolically reasserting their masculine identity – even where women are not the direct targets.

Another example: the conventional interpretation of the political violence between hostel-dwellers and permanent township residents of the early 1990s is that is was an essentially political contest between supporters of the Inkatha Freedom Party (hostel dwellers) and the African National Congress (township dwellers). But hidden beneath this understanding is something more complex. Migrant labour hostels are single-sex male institutions and conflicts over access to women, between hostel dwellers and township residents, were as often flashpoints for violence as political loyalties.

Male Emasculation

The sources of men's sense of emasculation and its relation to violence are deep-rooted and complex. Given the enduring tradition and history of patriarchal society, in which men have been accustomed to political and economic power, and the more recent realities of political and social change, in which they feel a loss of power and control, violence has become an important vehicle for re-asserting their masculine identity and influence. This is as true of family killings in white middle-class Afrikaner society – where political and social changes have eroded the traditional power bases of Afrikaner men – as it is in black working class society – where unemployment may be experienced in exactly the same way.

Economic and political changes are fundamentally undermining the identities conferred upon men by patriarchy. Formidable obligations and a sense of responsibility are interpreted in male-specific terms: men as breadwinners, men as guardians, men as protectors. As men fail to earn the bread and fail to act as guardians – whether in a political or economic context – they fail in their responsibility as protector. They must seek alternative vehicles for sustaining a sense of self and identity. And violence is such a vehicle.

Increasingly men are asserting their perceived authority in the one arena where they still hold sway – in the family and in the home. Women, children, the elderly and domestic workers become the victims of a displaced re-assertion of masculine authority. Similarly, criminal youth gangs function as a cohesive vehicle for sustaining male identity when others fail as places of belonging, be they the family, religious institutions, schools or the workplace.

In this regard South Africa is similar to other countries, where comparative research on the relationship between political transition and violence has linked the social upheaval of societies in transition or at war to displaced aggression against women and children. This link explains the rise of gangs in Central and Eastern Europe, the emergent mafiosi in parts of Eastern Europe, and the extraordinarily high levels of rape that characterised the Bosnian conflict.

Deconstructing Patriarchy

Deconstructing patriarchy needs therefore to be linked to how we understand and deal with the more general problems of violence in society and based on a recognition that gender-related violence and other forms of violence are not simply consequences of imbalances of political power and or economic impoverishment. We have tended to treat the formal democratisation of our society as the inherent solution to the problem of violence. And yet violence has not decreased here. Instead what we are witnessing are the various ways in which male aggression is continually displaced. Instead of treating South Africa as post-conflict society, we need to recognise that the historical consequences of marginalisation and impoverishment that were translated into overtly political violence in the past, are now manifesting in other forms of social conflict and violence outside of the formal political arena. Methodologically we need to find ways to measure and understand changing forms of conflict: the ways in which they play themselves out and the ways in which they select new and diverse victims.

Formal processes of political change will not necessarily address the causes of violence. Nor will the formal processes of reconstruction and development – job-creation and economic growth – necessarily reduce the levels of violence. The lesson we can learn from looking at violence through a gender lens is that it stems not only from political and economic inequality but is an expression of identity and the way in which identity is constructed and reconstructed by members of a society.

Re-stitching the Social Fabric

We need to push human development to the fore in re-stitching our social fabric. Institutions which empower people are the points of intervention for re-establishing a sense of a stake in society, particularly for young men. These might be family groups, religious communities, schools and so on. In the absence of such interventions young men have been capable of forging new sources of cohesion and identity for themselves, very often through violence. And, of course, work must continue to build women's organisation, to empower women, and to address gender inequality in ways which allow women to renegotiate and redefine the power imbalance in sexual relations.

Human development needs to address the issues of identity. It will have to engage more deeply with the people who were marginalised by apartheid and who remain marginalised under the new dispensation. These people need to start feeling that they have a stake in society and that they have some power. We will not succeed in weaning young people from the more profitable activities of crime and violence, and the identity which they confer, by simply providing them with jobs as street sweepers. In the abstract, this will mean working with children, and a future generation of adults in schools, and with young men in the workplace and in various social institutions, to give boys and young men a sense of belonging.

Human development also entails the recognition that there are some aspects of the nuclear family which intrinsically facilitate disguised forms of aggression and hidden forms of violence. In speaking of "returning to family values" and "rebuilding the family", we ought not to romanticise the family and ignore the extent to which the private, domestic realm – indeed the family itself – has provided a cover for violence and oppression.


1 These statistics are based on reports provided by several non-governmental organisations working violence against women to INTERFUND, as part of INTERFUND's Women, Gender and Development Programme.

2 This article is based on ongoing research at the Centre for the Study of Violence and Reconciliation (CSVR) and in particular two recent papers by Graeme Simpson (1997 and 1998).


Simpson, G. 1997. Jack-asses and Jackrollers: Rediscovering gender in understanding violence. Johannesburg: Centre for the Study of Violence and Reconciliation.

Simpson, G. 1998. Women and Children in Violent South African Townships. Johannesburg: Centre for the Study of Violence and Reconciliation.

© Centre for the Study of Violence and Reconciliation

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CSVR is a multi-disciplinary institute that seeks to understand and prevent violence, heal its effects and build sustainable peace at the community, national and regional levels.

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