Gender / Masculinity / Men / Power / Violence / Women

Men Who Speak With Fists: Pearlie Joubert

Man looking through garbage 1, Jan 10 2012, Pinelands, South Africa. Picture by Kopano Ratele

Five years ago this month the journalist Pearlie Joubert wrote this article for the Mail & Guardian (

I met Pearlie for the first time last week. During our conversation slash interview slash ideas-storm about a project on “how to start a revolution”, she was reminded by something I said about the article and promised to send it to me. I have pasted it below.

I don’t recall precisely what I said. But it was about fathers who have precarious employment or are unemployed and the violence that characterise their violence. The violence from the structures that burrows in their veins and infects their inner lives; and the violence they take out on others or takes their lives sooner or later.  

We didn’t talk about the National Campaign on 16 Days of No Violence Against Women when we met at the Queen of Tarts. But the Campaign started this week. And the article is relevant for that too.

One of the things that struck me in what the men told her is, as I said to her in a slightly different way in an email, the apparent inarticulability of their emotional and motivational lives. The not knowing how to speak of their pain and frustration and feeling of  misrecognition and sense of emasculation.

‘Sipho says he doesn’t know why he beats ‘his Emily”.’ And Chris James: ‘Halfway to work, I realised that I’m not satisfied because I didn’t manage to have my say. I went back inside the house and then I exploded and I punched her in the face and told her that I’ve had enough of her shit.’

I want to say what the flipping Satan!

But I know.

Don’t we all know?

I know about not knowing, and, though I have raged inside and wanted to explode because I did not know how-to and why, did not get a chance to speak my mind, I hope I will never use my fist to speak: that’s what I wish we African men can say.

Who has never had that feeling of dissatisfaction and unfinished-ness and smallness and ugliness when you want to feel big and beautiful? The sense that you could have said it differently. That you could have said it better, and won the argument. Dominated, appeared manlier. Or sexier, smarter, cooler, more knowledgeable, more desirable. Who hasn’t?

So are these men victims too? Well, no. And, well, yes, as Pearlie observes: in part these men’s stories are about ‘poverty and its devastating effects’.

The trick in separating the abuser from the victim-who-is-also-an-abuser is to know when it is one and not the other.

And for the men: being a victim of structural violence does not mean you have to take it out on others, often in a similar position as you, physically weaker than you.  

Here is the article.

“The first time I hit her was because she ignored me when I asked her where’s my dark green socks. I thought: ‘How can you not listen to me when you are my wife living here in this house that I built for you with my own hands. I’m the father of our children. I make the money and I am a man and if you don’t listen, I will make you listen.’ I beat her because I have no other way to make her listen to me or to make her see me. When I cry, she doesn’t see me. When I shout, she walks away. When I eat, I eat alone. Even when she talks to me, she doesn’t look at me.”

Sipho is 43 years old and lives in a shack in Nyanga. He has scars on the knuckles of his large hands.

He was born here, and started working on a construction site and was paid his first wage at the age of 15. He has been married for 22 years and has three daughters. After 28 years of working as an artisan he earns R3 428 per month.

He first punched his wife in the face shortly after the birth of his third daughter. He beats her, on average, every six weeks.

The Medical Research Council said in 2004 that a woman is killed by her intimate partner every six hours in South Africa — the highest rate in the world.

The Human Sciences Research Council has found in community-based prevalence studies that one in two South African women will be affected in some way by domestic violence.

Does this mean that one in every two South African males is guilty of some form of violence against women? Crime analyst Anthony Altbeker says he would ‘very surprised if it was less than 40% of men who are perpetrators of violence against women — it is probably a good deal higher”.

Eight years ago, nine of every 100 000 women were killed by their partners, making South Africa the most dangerous country in the world for women and girl children. These figures are rising.

The police have no figures on domestic violence because there is no such crime. But the police service’s annual report listed an average of seven women killed daily and one woman raped every 10 minutes. Rape Crisis says that 80% of the violence against women is inflicted by men who supposedly love them.

Sipho’s wife, Emily, has been hospitalised three times this year. The last time, Sipho raped her so violently that she had to undergo reconstructive surgery.

Sipho says he doesn’t know why he beats ‘his Emily”.

‘At work people shout at me. The shift foreman shouts and tells us we’re fucking this and fucking that. Taking the train home, people push me and often I miss my train because I can’t run any more. I get home very late and then I’m so hungry and so tired and I walk into the house and nobody is happy to see me. Nobody asks me how my day was,” he says.

‘When Emily opens her mouth she gives me instructions and tells me things I haven’t done. She tells me the roof leaks; she needs more money; the kids need shoes. All I want is for somebody to say my name and to, for a change, listen to me speak. And then it gets bad,” Sipho says.

‘When I hit her, it feels better but then it’s also terrible because she screams and I shout, and if the kids are around, they scream and it’s chaos. But I don’t stop because I’m so angry and I have no words to say how I feel.”

The story of why Sipho beats ‘his Emily” is, in part, the story of poverty and its devastating effects.

Lou-Marie Kruger, a clinical psychologist specialising in women and poverty, and who runs a rural clinic servicing a farming community outside Cape Town, says she has ‘yet to meet a women in this low-income community not affected by violence. We have a generation of white men who went to the border and were in the army shooting at fellow citizens during apartheid, and we have a generation of black men who were exposed to the violence of apartheid every day — we’re a deeply brutalised society in which men are as deeply scarred as women.”

Kruger points to the way anger is expressed in society. ‘Women and girls are socialised to talk about their feelings — from a young age they’re given words to describe how they feel. When they’re angry or sad, they moan or scream or complain, while men, typically, have not been trained emotionally and therefore often keep quiet.”

Men who abuse women are generally ‘weak, disempowered and emotionally dependent on women”, she says. People who are dependent are often enraged and tend to be destructive towards the person on whom they depend.

‘We have entire generations who grow up with no respect for another’s body — kids see their fathers being beaten by police, being paid terrible wages. They see their mothers being abused physically, emotionally and economically — these kids grow up understanding only the language of violence.”

A police officer with 35 years’ experience of working with rape and domestic violence cases says apartheid stripped men not only of their power, but also of their ‘very being”.

‘Most abusers we see are black and coloured men. I think it’s because our society told these men for many years how useless they are, how irrelevant they are. Eventually if you hear it often enough, you will start believing it,” the policeman says.

Dr Ian Lewis, a psychiatrist in charge of the Groote Schuur emergency psychiatric department, said one of the reasons men abuse women is because they are physically stronger and can get away with it. ‘Sipho will not beat up the foreman who treats him badly,” he said. ‘Men have a genetic propensity for violence. Boys are physically aggressive while girls are verbally aggressive. We use our strengths to maintain our status.

‘In South Africa people seldom get caught for beating women. That’s also one reason why our crime rate is so high. A lot of women are trapped and they don’t have options because poverty makes it impossible for them to act and to leave,” Lewis said.

He said the patterns of abuse and the cycle of violence are often more apparent in domestic violence incidents. ‘You often find that if you have an alcoholic, abusive father, you will find yourself with an alcoholic, abusive boyfriend. That’s your comfort zone.”

Lewis said alcohol and substance abuse play a significant role in most of the cases he sees daily.

‘I will not be one of those men’

Three years ago Chris James had an argument with his partner, Lizelle.

‘The next morning we continued arguing. I got into my car and drove off to work. Halfway to work, I realised that I’m not satisfied because I didn’t manage to have my say. I went back inside the house and then I exploded and I punched her in the face and told her that I’ve had enough of her shit. After I smacked her I felt instant gratification that now I’ve shown her — I can’t remember any more what the argument was about.”

Hours later, James phoned his partner and told her that he was in trouble and needed help. ‘I couldn’t believe that I actually did that. I grew up in Lavender Hill on the Cape Flats and often saw violence and I always promised myself that I will not be one of those men.”

James sought help from the Family and Marriage Association of South Africa, where he underwent therapy for more than two years. ‘I grew up believing that I need to stamp my authority on relationships and that I need to control my family because I’m the man. I had to unlearn all those instincts,” James says. ‘I can fall off the wagon – it can happen, but I’m dealing with this.

‘Therapy taught me to verbalise how I feel – once I got words I no longer needed my fists. We men are our own worst enemies because we don’t express our feelings.”—Pearlie Joubert

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