This is an edited version of the Dullah Omar Memorial Lecture,given by Graça Machel at the University of the Western Cape this week.
ISTAND here today, along with the memory of advocate Dullah Omar and the principles of justice and equality he stood for, urging us not to spare the strength or courage required to collectively soul-search and move us closer to the South Africa enshrined in the dreams of our Freedom Charter and Constitution.
As a nation, we were spared the ravages of civil war as the apartheid regime was dismantled and made a relatively peaceful transition to a democratic state.
We are at war with ourselves and with each other. We are plagued with deeply entrenched and festering wounds. The most visible manifestation of these can be found in our violent, unequal society.
Brutal violence visits us in our streets and in our houses on a daily basis. Media reports of smash and grabs, kidnapping of young women, horrific gender-based violence cases, brutal xenophobic attacks, cyber bullying, service delivery riots and political assassinations are commonplace.
I will first speak of the violence we visit upon ourselves – our children, our youth, our women, our elderly and our immigrants – and then turn to our violent outcry against our institutions.
Madiba rightly said, “There can be no keener revelation of a society’s soul than the way in which it treats its children.” Any society vested in its own progress must ensure its children are protected and nurtured. Curiously, South Africans show little regard and value for its youngest generations.
In schools and in their homes, where they are supposed to find sanctuary, children of all ages are victims of unspeakable violence. They suffer sexual violence at the hands of fellow students and teachers. Abuse of power by principals and teachers has made our classrooms and bathrooms unsafe for our pupils.
For adolescents, physical bullying is commonplace and now cyber bullying has become fashionable with girls being “slut shamed” on WhatsApp groups, Facebook timelines and Twitter feeds. Posts go viral of gang rapes and sexual assaults on school grounds.
There is a high prevalence of teenage pregnancy, with around 30% of 15 to 19 year olds reporting having ever been pregnant. According to the 2015 annual school survey, over 15 000 pupils became pregnant during the academic year, many as a result of abusive encounters.
Early pregnancies pose health risks to the mother and child, make it more challenging for a girl to complete her education and reach her academic and professional potential and put significant financial and emotional strain on family members.
More needs to be done to educate adolescents around sexual reproductive health and ensure girls and boys are making responsible decisions around their sexuality.
Children are also dying at the hands of adults at astounding rates. In Cape Town in 2016, at Salt River mortuary alone, at least 30 children were killed in their homes.
Having been socialised in a culture of violence, a natural tendency will be to operate in the world from a place of aggression and physical combativeness. We see this play out in young adulthood and beyond through gang violence, date rape, road rage and bar brawls.
When a society has lost its sense of boundaries and limitations, and has little respect for human life, what results is the visceral violence attached to what in other countries is limited to petty crime.
Home invasions and car theft escalate quickly here into kidnappings, rape and murder.
From 2015-16, over 18 500 murders were recorded – an average of 51 a day. This astounding statistic makes South Africa one of the most violent societies in the world and particularly dangerous for its young people, women and elderly.
According to the Victims of Crime Survey Data report released by Stats SA, most of these crimes are likely to occur either in the home or among people who know each other and with the influence of alcohol or drugs.
This implies that regardless of what crime strategies the police adopt, many of these crimes will continue unless behaviour and value change takes place in our society.
Alarming rates of brutality against the elderly turn often defenceless caregivers and matriarchs into victims of horrific violence. Rape, sexual groping and assault of elderly family members is often accompanied by the use of drugs and alcohol of the perpetrators.
We have not only turned against our own, but against those who have found refuge in this country. Waves of xenophobic attacks in 2000, 2008, 2013 and 2015 saw the killing of foreign nationals from Nigeria, Zimbabwe, Kenya, Somalia, Pakistan, Ethiopia and Mozambique.
We are a nation at war with itself. At war with our fellow citizens, and at war with our institutions.
There is still a common notion that violent protest is an acceptable reaction to state action (or inaction). Service-delivery protests and strikes often turn violent. Municipal IQ, a data service that monitors hotspots, says 86% of service delivery protests on its radar were characterised by violence in 2016. Burning, looting, stoning and destruction of property are commonplace. There is also severe mistrust between law enforcement and communities.
Educational institutions have also become a target of violence. Students with legitimate demands around free and accessible education should not feel they have to turn to violence by burning libraries and defacing property to have their demands met. While citizens should and have the right to protest and demand change, violent protest should not be the first and normal course of action.
We have inherited a violent past and legacy of disregard for authority. As a society, it is clear we have normalised violence and we have yet to unlearn how to interact with each other from a space of aggression.
We live in a climate and culture of hostility and violence that needs to be seriously dealt with.
While we put in place a system of governance to replace our old political framework and gave great thought to our political institutions, we did not give the same consideration to revamping our socio-economic landscape.
Clearly, more work needs to be done as economic inequality is still a significant problem. The gap between rich and poor is one of the widest in the world, the richest 1% of the population owning 42% of the country’s wealth.
We have yet to dismantle the contempt-breeding inequalities apartheid created. The stark dichotomy between Alexandra township and Sandton City, or Langa and Camps Bay, is heartbreaking and unacceptable this far into our new dispensation.
State capture and corruption have taken over our news headlines. We feel betrayed by some who we have elected to lead and govern us with responsibility, accountability and respect for the constitution, yet opt to put themselves and their coffers ahead of the well-being of the country.
Again, the response to the challenge of nation-building and governance has been violence.
The predatory mentality and mindset of “get rich at all costs” is not common to corrupt government officials and business alone, however. Even in our religious institutions, we see a leadership crisis and lack of moral fortitude. We see exploitative pastors enriching themselves at the expense of their followers.
The notion of ubuntu is underpinned by the recognition that a person is a person through other people. Our humanity is affirmed through the recognition of other – I am because you are.
The respect for human dignity is an obligation and condition of being human. The interconnectedness and interdependency of our humanity make such ills as violence against women, racial discrimination and oppression difficult to accept.