Masculinity / Men / Violence

Masculine Fear and Bravado Don’t Mix Well with Gunpowder

This is a slightly altered piece of the one that appeared in the Sunday Independent of March 03, 2013.

Kopano Ratele and Mbuyiselo Botha


On Friday morning, 14 December, a young man called Adam Lanza went to Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newton, Connecticut, United States, and killed 20 children, all aged 6 or 7. He also shot dead the school principal, and 5 other staff of the school.

Lanza was known to the principal. His mother worked at the school.

Because he knew Lanza, the principal buzzed him in, whereupon he went to two classes and fatally shot most of his victims.

Reportedly an intelligent and quite person, Lanza is said to have started his murder frenzy by killing his mother and the last person he killed was himself.

South Africans might feel the mass shooting at Sandy Hook is so far removed from us to hold any lesson for our society.

It could be said South Africa has enough problems and can’t be expected to expend mental energy on what, were it not for global news networks that brought the event to our awareness, is a distant distant American tragedy.

Yet what happened in Connecticut holds obvious lessons for any society grappling the scourge of gun-associated interpersonal masculine violence.

The recent fatal shooting of Reeva Steenkamp by Oscar Pistorius, among many other cases, suggests that armed violence is far from an unknown phenomenon in a country.

Besides their guns, there is seemingly one other equally significant and banal commonality between Oscar Pistorius and Adam Lanza: their gender beliefs.

Apparently, Lanza and Pistorius liked guns. It doesn’t take complex deductions to observe that their attraction to arms was founded on ideas of a certain militarized masculine subject prevalent in the US and South Africa.

We don’t know much about what Lanza thought about guns. We just know he had them.

We know from interviews and his affidavit during his bail hearing plea what Pistorius thought about guns.

In any event, both men owned licensed guns. The Paralympic superstar reportedly kept a firearm underneath under his bed when he went to bed at night – just in case there was an intruder. Masculine fear and bravado don’t mix well with gunpowder.

As in the US, South Africa is not dealing very well with the problems borne of armed masculinity gone awry.

Because we have not experienced mass murders in which a lone gunman walks into an educational and mows down students and teachers, it may seem to be a good reason for us to think that such events as occurred in the US will remain uncommon in South Africa. 

It is a clearly a good historical reason. But it would be self-deluding to think we shall never have mass murders in South Africa.

Even though we have never strictly had mass shootings at educational institutions, we have experience of mass murders as a society. We have had race-related shootings in Pretoria by a lone gunman. We have had police shooting unarmed people during apartheid in Sharpeville and Soweto.

Recently, heavily armed police mowed down miners in Marikana. The horror event might be represented as a tragedy by the president, but who is being fooled that this was clearly state-legitimised mass murder.

Even though we have never had mass shootings like what happens every few years at US educational institutions, we have experienced of shootings at schools or on the way from schools, by gangsters and fellow students.

But what must make us take note of what happened is that guns are implicated in a significant, although declining, number of fatalities and injuries in South Africa. 

For the most part, what has prevented mass murders in South Africa of the kind seen in Columbine High, Virginia Tech, and now Sandy Hook Elementary, is nothing of our own doing. What has protected many more women and girls from being shot to death by boyfriends and husbands is not a well-thought intervention plan by us. For the grace of god, we are always a day from accidental or premeditated violent death and international injury as much from familiars as strangers.       

In a touching address about the shooting during a press briefing President Barack Obama said “we are going to have to come together and take meaningful action to prevent more tragedies like this, regardless of politics.”

He was talking to Americans. But he may as well have been talking to us in this country.

We may as yet have no experience of the Sandy Hook Elementary School massacre, but something perhaps more insidious happens every day in South Africa, because the scores of murder victims do not even make news.

The only way we can prevent the many spectacular tragedies or murders that may lie in the future is to take meaningful action now. Incidentally, compared to Western European countries, South Africa is shown in global violence reports to be a very violent society – even without mass shootings at schools. Of course, when compared to the Honduras and Cote d’Ivoire, we come off better looking. And of course, many countries do not have report regularly or have reliable data.

That said, part of that action to prevent even more horrible murder events will mean another radical go at gun culture, ownership and possession.

Perhaps, though, the most lasting solution will be to act and offer new models of nonviolent masculinity to the men who like and use guns.

We have to find ways to disarm violent masculinity of its attractions.


One thought on “Masculine Fear and Bravado Don’t Mix Well with Gunpowder

  1. While Indeed I believe that the Marikana was a horrific event violence was instigated by both sides starting with a handful of irate miners being the perpetrators of great violence. Not only did they kill three men who had disagreed to active protest, they threatened those who wanted a peaceful protest. Video clips show men rushing at the police line with shamboks and guns (loaded or unloaded, I am not sure).

    There has been a mass outpouring of anger towards the police for the unjustified killing/assault/arrest of many innocent miners. This is the escalation of violence. As anger builds reason flies out the window, and I believe that this was true of both sides of the conflict. However, the violence of people such as our police force is truely frightening. Our protectors of justice crossed their own thin blue line, but only because the line was blurred from the blood on the sand.

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