Another year of abnormally high levels of violent crime and gratuitous brutality has ended. While much of the blame can be laid at the door of the criminal justice system* there can be no dramatic drop in violence until structural problems affecting family and community life are addressed.  Perpetrators of serious violent crime are found among all races and all classes. However, a disproportionate number of victims and perpetrators are black African, which is a legacy of our past.  As the Marikana tragedy showed, virtually nothing has been done in the past eighteen years to deal with the major cause of family instability for millions of people : The migrant labour system and its attendant ills. Cleansing ceremonies and moral regeneration campaigns are of limited value if children have not learned moral values and non-violent solutions to problems during their formative years.  In all societies it is the family, in its different forms, from which children learn core values. It is iniquitous that millions of South African children are still denied their right to a stable family life.


The impact of the past on the present

The discovery of minerals in the nineteenth century led to massive labour migration from rural areas, much of it prompted by land dispossession. Families were left without adult men (and women, if they too migrated). Influx control, the Group Areas Act and the forced relocation of millions of rural residents for purposes of homelands consolidation, wreaked havoc by disrupting stable communities. In rural areas children grew up in dire poverty in communities demographically skewed by the absence of adults, especially men, for most of the year.  For many decades researchers have recorded high percentages of female-headed households.  They are common in poverty-stricken societies in which the role of men, disempowered by discrimination and lack of access to decent employment, is marginal.


In urban and mining areas migrants are housed in dehumanising single sex hostels (because families were historically forbidden from entering town).  By the 1980s women were living with men in many hostels.  However, the nature of the accommodation – crowded, shared rooms with Spartan furnishings – did not encourage men to ring their families, but local girlfriends, and children, moved in. Men had little control over who their room mates brought in, and some complained bitterly of the lack of privacy, women fighting among themselves, illegal shebeens, and theft of personal belongings. Millions of people, including countless children growing up in these environs, have been – and still are – brutalised by extremely high levels of violence in these overcrowded dormitories.


The damage done to gender relationships by the structural changes should not be underestimated. The interdependence of the sexes of the pre-colonial era, and the authority of the senior male over his sons, was transformed by the independent earning capacity of men and women. At the same time, cruel and humiliating racial discrimination dealt a severe blow to the self-image and autonomy of many men who were also being challenged by the growing independence of women.  Power dynamics are central to violence and for decades researchers noted how many men displaced the frustrations of their own experience of powerlessness on to women, by abusing them and failing to maintain them.


Criminalisation of black people for trivial (and unjust) offences also occurred from the late nineteenth century. These offences related to the brewing and sale of liquor (even traditional beer, which the government monopolised), ‘pass law’ infringements and from the 1970s, possession of dagga. Petty offenders, falling victim to prison gangs, often emerged as hardened criminals.   At the same time, extremely dangerous drugs such as apartheid state-linked mandrax netted increasing numbers of drug addicts, whose addiction often led to other criminal activities to feed their habit.


The scars of the past have not disappeared in eighteen years and, unless there is fundamental structural change, they are unlikely to do so in the near future. Families remain divided between urban and under-developed, poverty-stricken rural areas, which still serve as labour resevoirs, as they did under colonialism. Migrancy has become a way of life for many men for whom it means the best of both worlds, since they can maintain their rural base and families (whom they may or may not support) while taking up with other women, and fathering children by them, in urban areas.  In towns or on the mines they are still, for the most part, subject to inhumane living conditions which would not be acceptable in ‘first world’ countries – yet they are still deemed good enough for black people in democratic South Africa.


So the past continues to shape the lives of a significant sector of the country’s population. Men whose fathers abused their wives, and children who were abused themselves, are likely to continue these patterns of abuse in their own families.  If appropriate male role models are absent the work of mothers and grandmothers is far more demanding and the children lose out. Both male and female children need stable male, as well as female, role models and the fact that too many do not have them is manifest in various ways, including criminal activities and teenage pregnancies.  Children need the love and security of a stable family grouping in which core values which promote the development of conscience are instilled, one in which fathers support their families and do not abuse them.  Poverty in itself does not lead to criminality – but in a society in which there are glaring inequalities, and the only male role models for badly educated, unemployed young men are public figures who promote the worst excesses of conspicuous consumption, a life of crime can easily beckon.


Healing the family to heal the wider community

It is time to put policy about family life in the public spotlight, and to address the issues which separate families, especially the lack of rural development and the need for family accommodation for migrants. Despite the government hype about development, changes in rural KZN since 1994 have been minimal.  There is a  multi-million rand development at Nkandla but people living in the same region (Umlalazi near Eshowe) suffer long periods without water, as do those in other rural areas. The Nkandla project includes new road works – yet in remote areas people battle to access clinics because of the state of the roads.  The National Development Plan speaks of increased food production, which would obviously create rural jobs – but that needs infrastructure, including reliable water supplies. At the same time, the mining industry is spreading its tentacles in rural areas, further jeopardising precarious water resources while creating minimal employment. Nor can there be any real development until the whole question of land use and ownership is traditional areas is addressed – and until the damage done to the land reform process by government departments is corrected.


It is imperative for all who are concerned about the circumstances in which millions of our children are growing up, including faith-based organisations, NGOs, professional associations and trade unions, to speak out about the evils of migrancy, and demand that in 2013 the government and employers start taking the steps needed to promote stable family life.

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