By Lubabalo Mdedetyana
Defining masculinity is a challenging task. Hamber (2010: 77) refers to Connell’s (2005) notion of masculinity as various ways of “doing male”, or “simultaneously a place in gender relations, the practices through which men and women engage that place in gender, and the effects of these practices in bodily experiences, personality and culture”. It is now generally accepted that it is less useful to think of a single version of masculinity, and more accurate to think about a range of masculinities.
Masculinities in South Africa are currently under scrutiny from academics, the media, government, non-governmental organisations and even from members of the general public. Toxic forms of South African masculinities are blamed for the alarmingly high incidence of intimate partner violence and sexual violence, domestic abuse and femicide in the country. Nearly two decades ago a study by Jewkes et al. (2001) reported that one in four women experienced physical violence at some point in their lives. Recent statistics confirm the ongoing high prevalence of such crime in South Africa: in 2016/17, 49 660 cases of sexual violence were reported (South African Police Service, 2017).
According to the American Psychological Association (APA) (2018), men are highly diverse, including with regard to race, ethnicity, age, socio-economic status, ability, sexual orientation and gender identity. Each of these social identities contributes to how men experience and perform their masculinities, which in turn contribute to men’s relationship, psychological and health outcomes. The APA acknowledges that across the world men as a group hold privilege and power based on gender, but also have disproportionately high drop-out rates from education, mental health challenges (e.g. successful suicide), health problems (e.g. cardiovascular disease) and public health concerns (e.g. susceptibility to violence, substance abuse, imprisonment and earlier mortality). There is also clear evidence that in comparison with women, many men do not seek medical or psychological help when they most need it (Ibid).
The incidence of violence in South Africa (particularly sexual violence) appears to have risen alongside the country’s transition from apartheid rule to democracy, post-1994. Liz Walker (2005) relates the startling increase in sexual violence to a “crisis of masculinity” engendered by South Africa’s post-apartheid Constitution, which affords men and women equal rights, and prohibits discrimination on various grounds, including gender or sexual orientation. According to Walker, some men believe that change since 1994 has considerably improved women’s status at the expense of men’s status: South African men see educational and employment opportunities earmarked for girls and women, whilst they themselves experience high rates of unemployment and marginalisation (Ibid). In Walker’s view, prior to 1994 masculinity was predicated on a man being the head of a household and a family provider. However, women’s relatively greater financial gains refute the notion of men as primary providers, leading men to feel emasculated (Ibid). Dunaiski (2013) partly concurs with Walker, believing that the “crisis of masculinity” discourse has its origins in anti-feminist literature from the mid-1970s in reaction to the women’s liberation movement in Western industrialised countries. Dunaiski agrees that the transition to democracy in South Africa, with its powerful gender equality agenda, has prompted a similar backlash against perceived “over-empowerment” of women (Ibid).
Hoffmeester (2017) argues that toxic masculinity is embedded in South African culture, and that socialisation of males, both worldwide and in South Africa, is directly linked to gender-based violence. She defines “toxic masculinity” as a constellation of social attitudes that define masculine gender in terms of violence, sexual aggression and lack of emotional expressions, and asserts that subscription to toxic masculinity is harmful and fatal to both men and women (and other genders), as shown by high levels of violence in South Africa, with men being both perpetrators and victims (Ibid).
Hamber (2010) finds Walker’s views of a crisis of masculinity post-1994 problematic. He points out that prior to the advent of democracy, the impact of the migrant labour system on black families meant that black women were often the primary breadwinners and caretakers of families (Hamber, 2010: 82), which continued after the advent of democracy. In addition, since 1990 women’s primary caregiving role in South Africa has been exacerbated by the impact of the HIV/AIDS pandemic. Hamber (2010) refutes the notion of a new crisis of masculinity, arguing that a crisis involves “psychologising” of men (for example, arguing that men feel confused, anxious and insecure), whereas the real issue is actually political, viz. change in the power dynamics of male-female relationships. Rather than being a uniquely South African problem, Hamber states, globally men have struggled with perceived shifts towards greater gender equality (Ibid). He views the “so-called crisis” as giving credence to the agenda of the South African “new man”, espoused by organisations such as Brothers4Life, the notion of the “new man” having been borrowed from the well-resourced Western world.
The “new man” is conceptualised as one who is sensitive, and who embraces equal power relations in the workplace and at home (Hamber, 2010). He is non-violent, monogamous, modern, responsible, and he respects both men and women (Walker, 2005). Hamber (2010) finds problematic the perspective of the “new man” predicated on the view that men are the primary breadwinners. Finally, Hamber sees the notion of the “new man” as fundamentally middle class, and hence as unlikely to serve men in less resourced contexts, such as black working class men, who are the targets of gender equity campaigns such as Brothers4Life.
Decoteau (2013) similarly rejects the idea of a South African “crisis of masculinity” viewed as the clash of “modern” rights-based egalitarian gender ideals and “traditionalist” African cultures insistent on male authority. Decoteau finds such a rigid binary dichotomy inconsistent with the cultural hybridisation of 400 years of colonialism in South Africa. She critiques the notion of a “crisis of masculinity” for demonising traditional masculinity, for locating it primarily within the African population and for characterising it as violent and misogynistic. Moreover, she views this approach as indifferent to the complex ways in which tradition and modernity themselves are constantly being reinvented and used in contestations of hegemonic masculinity, and to address the anxieties associated with defining South Africa’s national identity and its position in the world.
Dube (2016) agrees with Decoteau that, in general, post-apartheid masculinities are imagined as homogenous, black and problematic. Dube (2016: 76) points out that “oversignification conflates difference”, i.e. it fails to take into account masculine power differentials which still exist in post-apartheid South Africa because of the persistence of unacknowledged and unexamined forms of privilege amongst white men.
Hamber (2010) contends further that sexualisation of politics in the post-apartheid era signals (and masks) a profound crisis of liberation rather than of a crisis of masculinity. He argues that such politics mask the reality that African communities are still marginalised. “Tradition” is then deployed as a means to resist economic globalisation and cultural imperialism, where the “imposition of women’s rights” is experienced as a means of erasing a sense of culture and identity of African women and men.
Ratele (2014) supports Decoteau’s views regarding the shortcomings of South African scholars in analysing masculinity in South Africa. Like Decoteau, he maintains that the problem with such scholarship is that it does not locate men within marginality and in juxtaposition with powerful multinational capitalistic ideologies. Ratele describes research which takes this view as contemptuous of tradition, which is unhelpful since it leads men to perceive gender equity as anti-African and expressing white middle-class aspirations. Ratele implores gender workers to move beyond blaming all males, and to insert into the larger South African gender project an appreciation of how capitalism, geopolitical relations, poverty, unemployment, economic inequalities, race ideologies and cultural marginalisation have impacted on boys and men.
Other researchers highlight how men in South Africa are involved in multiple partnered relationships in performance of masculinities that idealise male virility and male sexual conquest (Peacock et al., 2008), and which increase vulnerability to HIV infection (see also Chikovore et al., 2016). Many South African men are reluctant to use condoms, preferring sex “flesh to flesh”, which increases the risk of HIV infection. Men are furthermore less interested in making use of health care facilities and in undergoing HIV testing.
Moolman (2017) argues that in performing masculinity, South African men draw on ideas from both tradition and modernity, which means that South African masculinities are contradictory, fluid and flexible. He points out that tradition and modernity are practiced in social spaces such as in the bush or in the mountains, as well as in the public health sector. In the process masculinity is reworked within these spaces.
Shefer, Kruger and Schepers (2015) suggest that research and public interrogation of boys and men in South Africa and elsewhere within the contexts of male violence and hegemonic male masculinities reproduces a problematic gaze on predominantly poor, black and young men. This focus too easily leads to a blaming discourse, in which poor young black men are seen as “the problem”. However, they argue, also embedded in dominant discourses of masculinity and male sexuality, are contestations, and vulnerabilities. In their research Shefer, Kruger and Schepers (2015) found that young men shift between different versions of masculinity and respond to contradictory demands on them as young men.
Dunaiski (2013) concurs with this perspective, arguing that by focusing solely on the changing gender relations in post-apartheid South Africa, the “crisis of masculinity” thesis fails to take into account the effects of race and class oppression on the social construction of violent masculinities. Instead, a focus on the historical legacy of apartheid and the conditions of material life is key to understanding why violent masculinities prevail in contemporary South Africa. Sathiparsad (2008) makes a helpful point in noting that one aspect of the solution to GBV is getting men to realise the value of changing gender relations by emphasising that women’s empowerment does not necessarily mean men’s disempowerment.
This piece has examined debates on masculinity in South Africa within the context of the ubiquitous violence caused by men to women, children and members of the lesbian, gay, bisexual, trans and intersex (LGBTI) community. Hopefully it has shed some light on why South Africa continues to exhibit high prevalence of various forms of violence, particularly gender-based violence. This review may be useful to researchers in the field of sexuality and gender, and also of interest to those who seek solutions in generally curbing violence.
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