There’s no better time to make men aware that many of the behaviours the majority of them tend to associate with true manhood are more likely to lead them to an early death than the delivery room. Use the teachable moment when a man’s wife or girlfriend is giving birth and we might start to see some changes about how men think about life and death.
That’s pretty much the answer I gave to a question I was asked a few weeks ago at a seminar on men, violent death and fear I gave at the Psychology Department of Stellenbosch University.
The question was, when is it the best time to intervene to change and save men from premature violent death?
Of course I was wrong. I will tell you why in a minute, but it has nothing to do with my idealistic, or whipped manhood, or even whitened, westernised notions that African men ought to enter the labour room. I am no idealist.
That question is the same one to be kept in mind when reading the 2011-2012 crime statistics released last month by the South African Police Services (SAPS). That is, besides the sense of hopelessness that sets in annually round this time due to the farce staged by the political head honchos when the SAPS presents the crime statistics, the question we are really faced is, when are we going to stop dying and start living?
Dying violently is something South Africa does well. The latest SAPS crime statistics indicates that 15 609 reported cases of murder were reported for 2011-2012. That’s 42 people reportedly killed each day of the year.
The good news is that the figure is down from the 15 940 reported for 2010-2011, meaning 43 murders a day. But you don’t need to be a statistician to know that the reduction is a non-significant drop.
Attempted murder is said to have dipped below 15 000, decreasing from 15 493 to 14 859. That too cannot make any government concerned with social well-being happy.
If we add the 64 514 total sexual offences reported for 2011-2012, even though it is a decrease from 66 196 for the previous reporting year, all of this makes for depressing news.
Look, it is clear that we are a bit better off today than we were in 2004-2005 as far the murders, sexual offences, assault with intent to do grievous bodily harm, common assault and other crimes figures are concerned. The number of people killed, raped, badly beaten up, or just slapped remain unacceptably high, but we have to try to be less miserable since they are down from 7 years ago, if the police are to be trusted.
What the police statistics won’t show, though, if your interest is murder, is who is at greatest risk of getting killed? You can infer part of the answer by posing the question where is one most likely to be killed. The answer is in the maps of murder around South Africa.
If you consider Western Cape, for instance, the crime statistics and maps indicate that your chances of dying a violent death are elevated around Delft, Harare, Nyanga, Mfuleni, Mitchells, Philippi East, and other place nearby these areas, as opposed to Camps Bay, Simon’s Town or Fish Hoek for instance. Tembisa, Katlehong and Kagiso are among the areas that have high numbers of murder in Gauteng.
What the maps suggest then is that you are endangered if you live in predominantly black and coloured areas, especially if you are in the Western Cape. That is not unknown.
What you still don’t have an answer to is the fact that dying young from murder is largely a male activity. That fact is gleaned from the surveillance and research work of the Safety and Peace and Promotion Research Unit at the Medical Research Council and other bodies which have shown a consistent distribution and pattern of violence mortality over the years. The picture is not likely to have changed.
The likelihood is that the majority of the 15 609 bodies reported to be killed are those of young black and coloured men.
We know already that this is the group whose rates are highest in the country. We know that they start dying in their late teenage years. We know that the most dangerous period to be a young man is the 20s. And, although most men are unaware of the quality of the breathing, we also know that they won’t be out from under the dark cloud of death till they get to 50 plus.
Our lack of awareness or lack of self-care about how close to death we as men fly each day has absorbed my attention for a while now. That lack of awareness and caring for ourselves and others almost certainly contributes to the probability that the country will not bring down the body count to a few hundred in the next year or two. Or even the next five years.
Even then, we can’t lose all hope or be cynical, if we believe in black men; if we think black men, like black women, have a contribution to make to the world far beyond their families and neighbourhoods.
And so it may just help to save a few more lives if men were shown how death stalks their days. It may help black men if they are shown that they are not breathing as freely as they could. It may save our country a bundle if we had to deal with fewer cases of fatal and nonfatal trauma than we are doing at present. Actually, it may make us a cohesive, happier society, besides being a safer, peaceful one, if government, business and the rest of us if we put our money and minds and shoulders into how to prevent young men dying violently and lead them towards living meaningful lives.
The problem is much bigger than one of awareness, or simple policing though. The problem of black men dying young is a problem of the whole of society, not individual men. That doesn’t mean black men should take abdicate their responsibility of learning to care for themselves.
Those in power in free South Africa tolerate violence against black people, and especially against poor, black, young men. When it comes to men, especially those of a certain class and hue, the country does more than simply tolerate violence. Often enough those in power use violence against black men when the latter make their needs publicly known. The police, who are given legal rights to use violence, are often part of the problem, as was evident in Marikana.
Above all though, violence against black men is encouraged in many small ways. The ruling idea is that a true man ought to stomach violence and pain, to take it like a man.
An intolerance of violence would mean giving anti-violence work a priority. Actually, government does give violence the priority it deserves. But only when it happens to the wrong persons.
Can you imagine what would happen if a well-adjusted man with no prior history of crime were to shoot a cabinet minister or chief executive of a listed company for no apparent reason? That would certainly be prioritised. Everything possible would be done to speedily find the perpetrator. He would be arrested in no time, I bet. The court trial would be swiftly underway. But that too would still be missing the forest for the trees. The problem is the social order. The social order is killing young black men. And guess what their response is? We don’t care.
That is the reason I think I was wrong in how I answered the question after my talk at Stellenbosch.
The right answer is not, to be clear, that the levels of murder in South Africa will be drastically reduced by recruiting more police, shooting criminals and giving them harsher sentences, as opposed to encouraging men to witness the pain and miracle of birth on its own. Of course, some experts have said what we need is not more, but better, policing; not more guns, but preventative interventions. That is certainly part of the basket of required interventions.
The right answer then is that a better time to intervene to save men from an early violent death is, as someone suggested to me after I had answered, not the labour room but before conception. To save men from an early grave we need to intervene before children are conceived, before the first sexual act.
But the best time? That’s all the time. The best time to save a life is from birth to the day a person dies from old age.
To save men and women from an early death we need to go in for the long haul, stay the course, make our interventions at every possible moment until we don’t have any young South African dying from violence.
Every possible moment of a young man’s life is better than the last time – when the lesson is to make him believe in life, when we want him to know that life can be better. Every moment before the idea of manhood as the capacity to beat the other guy to a pulp congeals is a good moment to give hope, learn to care and remake masculinity. And then do it again and again, whenever possible. All men, I suspect, whatever their age, can always use a well-chosen word about how to live better.