All South African males, despite the striking differences in the environments in which they grow up, have experiences that bear some similarity. From early childhood, we have been socialised to understand maleness and masculinised identities to mean embracing and becoming part of a rough, tough society where brawn may often be celebrated, as much if not more than brains.
It is a society where toughness is a quality of manhood, rated above tenderness. In all of this, ethics and integrity do not carry much weight.
As a schoolboy, a leg injury prevented me from playing rugby and I felt inadequate, since that was one of the terrains (in the social context of our society) where boys became men. When the captain of the University of Cape Town rugby team addressed our school, he said that studies were important, but rugby was “the main thing”.
I was one of those who applauded most enthusiastically.
Rough sports, settling arguments through fists or knives, lead to other forms of aggression, including road rage and other acts of everyday violence. These are an integral part of the cultures of our society today and everyday lived experience.
The apartheid system embraced a systemic culture of dominance and oppression, not only on racial grounds, but also through trying to shape identities in a manner that entrenched inequality. It interfaced with and enhanced powerful patriarchies in all communities, black and white, reinforcing gender roles, which erased women or treated them as subservient to men.
Apartheid rule depicted white males as figures of authority and Africans as children.
This was expressed by General JMB Hertzog, former prime minister, in 1926: “Next to the European, the Native stands as an 8-year-old child to a man of great experience – a child in religion, a child in moral conviction; without art and without science, the most primitive needs and the most elementary knowledge to provide for those needs.
“If ever a race had a need for guidance and protection from other people with which it is placed in contact, then it is the Native in his contact with the white man.”
The infantilisation of Africans and African men in particular was one of the foundations for continued racial dominance and subjugation. The liberation struggles responded with assertions of African manhood and rejected the systemic assault on their being and wider overlordship represented by Hertzog and other architects of apartheid.
Liberation struggles are suffused with masculine idioms and language. African men have described themselves as emasculated by apartheid; the struggle for liberation is described as one where men recover their manhood.
These references to manhood were more than a reaction to the colonial/apartheid order which constructed African men as “boys” and as part of what Hertzog and Smuts referred to as a “child race”. The claims of freedom and self-identification as “men” instead of boys was part of their rejecting infantilisation and recovering rights, expressed in masculinist terms.
Liberation movements internationally tend to be male-dominated and the dominant language of political identity and discourse is also suffused with male imagery.
Those that emerge from armed struggle, no matter how just their cause, tend to carry over militaristic imagery and often acts of violence into a time of peace.
In contemporary SA, we see this in the language of war, with calls to “kill for (President Jacob) Zuma”, “shoot to kill” and a police general saying that we should “pick up the spear again”. The ANC, like other liberation movements on the African continent, originated as an African male organisation and it was only in 1943 that African women were admitted as full members, although there is evidence that women played an important political role in and outside the ANC long before their full admission.
However, men leaders still predominate. The culture of liberation movements is a masculinised one.
When women enter the organisation they join masculinised structures, that is, organisations and institutions that are defined by a patriarchal culture and often relegate women to a limited range of roles. For example, most strategic thinkers continue to be men, who are positioned in a way that shapes the culture and terms of engagement within the organisation.
The onset of armed struggle created a new terrain where masculinities acquired a heroic status associated with warfare. But the aggression required for war precedes the formation of armies and its salience continues afterwards. Nelson Mandela was a boxer before he became a soldier. It is said that making a good amateur boxer requires a “monastic-type discipline” and we know that is also what is required of a liberation fighter. Mandela was not atypical.
Sydney Seshibedi reported in The Times that Ben “TNT” Lekalaka had a short but impressive career in the ring as a lightweight, with 15 wins out of 22, 11 of these being knockouts. He had two shots at a national title – but TNT’s boxing career ended abruptly in 1976 when he skipped the country to join MK. There are many other rough, tough activities that may be seen as preparation for taking up arms.
In SA, women played a significant role in all aspects of the liberation struggle, including engaging in some of the most dangerous work. This did not insulate them from abuses in military camps.
This is not to suggest that all soldiers are abusers of women – but the hierarchical command rendered female soldiers vulnerable. This is also true of established armies. In the past 20 years, the US military has been dogged by revelations of abuses of women and other related prejudices. Tendencies do not unfold inevitably into established practice and one way of preventing violent masculinities is to search liberation history for those male leaders who represent alternative models, which reject patriarchy and sexism.
The history of the ANC and MK is rich with examples of leaders and combatants whose approach and practices rejected the idea that the ultimate weapon in an argument is not reason, but an act of violence.
Mandela was a boxer and soldier, but imagery around him also suggests tenderness towards babies and all who were vulnerable.
This was also true of Walter and Albertina Sisulu, sometimes mistakenly seen “moderates”.
Chief Albert Luthuli was a strong man willing to stare death in the face. As early as 1952, when he refused the government’s demand that he choose between being a chief and the liberation struggle, he looked into the future and confronted the possibility of banishment, ridicule, humiliation or death.
He did not shrink from that. He was strong, but also gentle and involved in nurturing his children. As he sat reading and writing long after they were asleep, he would cover any child whose blanket had fallen off or gently guide any one sleep- walking back to their bed.
Chris Hani may be SA’s equivalent of Che Guevara – but Hani was not just brave in the face of danger. He was so powerful and popular a figure in MK because he cared about each and every soldier.
Before people crossed the border infiltrating apartheid SA, he would ask them whether they were sure they were ready to face what lay ahead. Did they have any unfinished business that would impair their capacity to operate in adverse conditions? Hani was not only interested in the soldier as a fighting machine, but as a human being, with the vulnerabilities all of us have, even if we don’t admit this.
Images of heroism have tended to rely heavily on military heroism and have jettisoned other models of masculinity as seen in leaders like Luthuli, who was militant but also tender.
We need to advance notions of masculine heroism where people are rounded human beings, strong but also tender, brave but also unafraid to express their vulnerabilities. In exploring these different forms of heroism, we may learn ways of ending the scourge of violent masculinities.
The link between militarism and violence against women, which is a theme for this year’s 16 Days of Activism, invites us to examine complex relationships, which continue to dominate political developments in SA.
One of the pressing challenges facing SA today is to claim a notion of manhood and masculinity that celebrates a range of qualities that contribute to building constructive and respectful relations between all who live in our country. Confronting ways in which we are shaped by sexism and militarism is critical in challenging de facto hierarchy of rights in the Bill of Rights.
Just as racism is not tolerated, equal value must be placed on the right to gender equality. This is primarily a question of building a culture which rejects valorisation of brawn and chauvinism.
The values of the constitution are pillars that must be strengthened, embraced and advanced in all areas of society, including the public and private, if we are to effectively challenge raging misogyny in SA.
n Raymond Suttner was an underground operative and served two terms of imprisonment, lasting more than 10 years. He is author of Inside Apartheid’s Prison (2001) and The ANC Underground (2008). Suttner is a part-time professor at Rhodes University and an emeritus professor at Unisa.