Picture: Doctor Ngcobo/African News Agency(ANA) – A police van is parked outside a tavern in Sweetwaters, outside Pietermaritzburg where 4 people were shot dead by an unknown gunman who opened fire at people patrons drinking inside the establishment.
By Sethulego Matebesi
The recent tavern shootings in Mamelodi, Orlando and Pietermaritzburg have thrust violence in South Africa into the spotlight once again. It is not yet known whether these events are related. It is interesting, though, that these shootings occurred during the same month as the unrest in July 2021. Violence, wherever it rears its head, produces strong reactions because of the emotional scars it leaves on those directly affected. But violence is a social and political problem that cannot be resolved in isolation from the conditions that give rise to it. Despite violence being ingrained in many societies globally, the primary response seems to be characterised by reactive strategies.
For example, how many times have we heard about the necessity to adopt stringent gun-control laws each time there are mass shootings in the US? It has been asked why the US cannot implement similar programmes against firearms as Australia and Japan. These countries underscore the global trend that nations with stringent gun laws have fewer gun murders. In South Africa, official statistics have shown that, despite the relatively strict firearms control legislation, firearms continue to be the most used weapons to commit murder and violent crimes. What does this tell us? The human capacity for violence cannot be erased completely.
As noted, strict firearm laws are among the major underlying causes of a decline in violent crimes in several countries. However, such laws will never be able to prevent the individual capacity for violence completely. While one can’t condone the widespread disregard of liquor trading conditions by liquor outlets, no security measures will prevent criminals from storming these establishments. The suspension of the liquor licences of some of these establishments illustrates the government’s reactionary approach to many of the challenges the country faces. There are many respectable township liquor establishments in South Africa. Hidden amid the controversy of the shootings is that taverns have transformed from spaces where adults used to meet to where our youth enjoy some of the most unattractive virtues of our democracy: reckless alcohol consumption, drug abuse and women abuse. As is often the case, some might blame the widespread violence in South Africa on the government.
There remains, however, a crucial point to be made that there is considerable merit in such opinions. Still, too much emphasis on what the government is supposed to do obscures the fact that the problem is not simply to identify multiple causes of violence but to understand the complex ways in which they interact. Moreover, the situations that produce violence also produce other traumatic experiences which are not often reported. Certainly, we can blame the government for failing to protect citizens against crime and violence. However, violence is symptomatic of the society in which it develops. I agree that violence reveals a great deal about the nature of the authority it confronts, but it is also the inevitable result of family disintegration. Violent cobwebs of the past need integrated families, not Amaberete.
After decades of violence, South Africa has been preoccupied, and understandably so, with the harmonious integration of racial groups under the banner of the rainbow nation since 1994. While racial dispositions heightened and hastened by racial intolerance still occur sporadically in the country, significant progress has been made regarding social cohesion. But dig deeper, and it gets worse. Suppose you look at how families – the primary agents of socialisation – have gradually disintegrated over the years because of modernisation and many other factors. In that case, you will also notice how the lack of respect for human life and distortion of societal norms and values have taken centre stage. A cursory analysis of violence at South African schools demonstrates how family disintegration breeds violence and encourages gangsterism. A poignant finding, for me, is that many South Africans still have to learn how to shake the cobwebs of the past violent dispensation to contribute to the good of society.
Unfortunately, this is a virtue that security forces, including Amaberete, cannot instil. Violence endangers and radically disrupts the everyday life of civilians and, if left unresolved, remains an affront to human values. In the long run, however, there can be little doubt that good parental practices and supportive community structures are among the most appropriate approaches to combat the high levels of violence in South Africa.
Matebesi is an Associate Professor and Head of the Department of Sociology at the University of the Free State