More than gangsterism, structural violence is the issue


Jasmina Brankovic

Announcing that President Zuma would not deploy the army to intervene in Cape Flats gang wars, his spokesman Mac Maharaj noted that the president “has directed ministers in the social and economic sectors to study the situation and look for long-term solutions that promote sustainable development and stable communities.” The president should be held to this commitment to look beyond short-term responses to gang violence and identify policy solutions that address the poverty and inequality that drive everyday violence in poor urban areas.
As part of a study on the relationship of violence and transition, I looked at how a group of young men under 23 in Gugulethu and Mfuleni describe their experiences of and participation in the violence in their areas. These life stories show that both members of informal neighbourhood gangs and young men who have never joined a gang are exposed to violence every day, especially beatings and stabbings by other young men from rival informal gangs or different neighbourhoods who nonetheless know each other. The young men talk about participation in violence as almost unavoidable and link it to their sense of self, to being socially visible in the neighbourhood and to rites of passage associated with becoming an adult man.
The stories suggest that these young men have been turned inward on their neighbourhoods since boyhood, rarely leaving them and disconnected from the rest of the city. One young man says he has not left Gugulethu in the past three years while another speaks about the centre of Cape Town as a separate city. While neighbourhood life offers comfort and a sense of belonging, it also opens the young men to physical violence from other young men as well as neighbours and police suspicious of their lifestyles. Spending days on the corner, young men serve as role models to boys who grow up watching them, including as they daily engage in serious violence. The stories indicate that this dynamic has been reproduced from generation to generation of young men since well before the transition to democracy.
A central root of this violence is the historical and ongoing exclusion of people living in poor urban areas from the country’s mainstream economic life. The geographical marginalisation, inadequate education and limited skills and employment opportunities institutionalised under apartheid continue almost 20 years after the transition. Indeed, they are entrenched by current economic policies that sideline people with low education levels and skills in seeking to generate high-paying and high-productivity jobs in capital- and skills-intensive industries.
Research shows that constraints on a family’s education and acquisition of skills, combined with living far from urban economic centres in areas with limited public services as well as having social networks with similar constraints, not only undermine their chances of finding work but also negatively affect their children’s life opportunities. Many parents are forced to work in the informal sector, without the protections of predictable hours and personal leave usually offered by formal employment, which, along with poor access to more structured activities, contributes to boys and young men in particular spending days in the neighbourhood with little oversight, watching and often modelling violent behaviour. The past and present socioeconomic exclusion that fosters poverty and inequality is therefore intimately linked to everyday physical violence among the young men, whether gangster or not.
The international and local literature supports the connection between violence and poverty and inequality that has emerged from the young men’s stories. While this calls for more discussion in South Africa, where inequality has only increased since the transition and violence levels remain both high and a point of widespread public interest, the stories call for going a step further and identifying the poverty and inequality as violence in itself. The concept of “structural violence” is useful in this regard because it describes the institutionalisation and legitimisation of power inequalities while also highlighting this institutionalisation as violence.
Structural violence is so normalised that it is usually accepted as a fact of life but it is perpetrated by individuals and institutions at all levels of society. Government, however, has a particular responsibility to address its role in institutionalising structural violence through its policies, especially economic policies. The term “structural violence” provides civil society actors working for socioeconomic transformation on one hand and a more peaceful society on the other – from social movements to NGOs – with a common ground and an advocacy tool for provoking more public discussion on poverty and inequality and for pushing government to develop a deeper and long-term strategy for addressing this cause and form of violence.

Jasmina Brankovic, “Op-Ed: In Some Places It Is Almost Impossible Not to Get Caught Up in the Violence,” Cape Times, 28 August 2012.

Brankovic is a researcher on the Violence and Transition project, run by the Centre for the Study of Violence and Reconciliation and the Centre for Humanities Research, University of the Western Cape.