Guest Column

Hiding their shame in alcohol

2017-04-16 06:03
Men relaxing and drinking at a shebeen.

Men relaxing and drinking at a shebeen.

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Yandisa Sikweyiya

For young rural men, poor education, lack of employment and no state support leads to frustration and rage.

Like most migrant workers, I visit my home village in December. And so last year I went to Vonqo, approximately 30km from Dutywa, Eastern Cape. The road to the village is untarred and poorly maintained, making access during good weather difficult and during the rainy season almost impossible.

Vonqo is poor. There is no clinic – people must travel to neighbouring villages. Illiteracy is high. There are few primary schools, and the recently built high school is unable to cater for the village’s educational needs. Unemployment is extremely high. Most households depend on state grants or support from family members working in the cities.

Alcohol use, at harmful levels, is rife. There is very little to do; amenities available in other villages, such as recreational facilities, are not available in Vonqo.

Many times during my visit, I encountered young men walking about in the village, seemingly with no destination or purpose. On closer interaction with them, I saw their hopelessness and despair. They lacked motivation to interact with others, especially their peers who, like me, were in the village to spend holidays with kith and kin. I grew up in the same village as these men. As a member of the community and a researcher, I wanted to better understand their low spirits and disengagement. I wished to sit down with them, talk and find out how they were feeling. But first I watched.

“Failed sons” of the village

Alcohol is used to numb the despair and shame of joblessness. These men wake up early in the morning and instantly go in search of leftover traditional beer from households which had umgidi (circumcision ceremony) the previous day. Or they spend their days in taverns, drinking sorghum beer. They only emerge from these “dugouts” when drunk and supposedly with some guts to face or tolerate the world.

Among black people (or my people), much is expected of young men, centring around securing jobs, marriage, establishing a family and material provision. Those I observed in my village had little chance of meeting these expectations, hence were likely to be judged harshly by others – as failures. What initially occurred to me was that their shame and social withdrawal could be resulting from their feeling they were probably perceived as “failed sons” of the village. Notwithstanding, a closer analysis of their behaviour suggested the existence of brewing frustration and anger. Towards whom this anger is directed and how it would manifest are questions that concerned me.

Like their forefathers and fathers before them, driven by a desire to provide for their families, most of these young men had at some point left the village to look for employment in the mines. This very act was a public promise to their families that a better future awaited them. Now in their forties or younger, illiterate, unskilled and having given up on finding work in the cities, they have returned home, possibly for good, to face disenchanted parents whose own hopes for a better life are permanently dashed with the return of these empty-handed men. The reality now is that these young men depend on their elderly and often sickly parents for food and other needs.

I imagine that, from time-to-time, they ask their parents to spare R100 or so for them from their meagre monthly social grants money. The media have published disturbing accounts of young men like these in the Eastern Cape, who forcefully take social grants money from their parents or elderly relatives, some completing this heinous deed with physical or sexual assault on them. Could this be evidence of the frustration and anger I suspected?

While I yearned for an opportunity to sit down with these men and question them, I was uncomfortable to do so lest I opened wounds they probably have in their hearts, which they were trying so hard to hide. I asked myself what I had to offer them, subsequent to their having shared their challenges and frustrations.

Despair and anger

Faced with this dilemma, I shifted my thinking and wondered whether the state was aware of this stratum of the rural population – uneducated, unskilled and jobless young men with feeble livelihoods, sitting on the margins of the society. Shouldn’t there be programmes in place that could aid these men by including them in the economy of the country? Other thoughts and questions flooded my mind. What will become of them? Will they accept the status of being failed sons of the village? Do they have the consciousness to rise and hold government accountable for their situation, or would they just accept that their relationship with the state will remain nonexistent?

I pondered whether their frustration and rage would eventually explode, resulting in their hurting themselves and those around them. Or would they direct their anger at the state and, if so, how? And when the state would cease being indifferent about their existence and work on improving its relationship with them?

It occurred to me that perhaps these men had cried out for help at some point in their lives, only to be ignored by the state, as the people of Vuwani in Limpopo experienced. I couldn’t but conclude that the state continues to fail these young men in multiple ways as it has done in other stages of their lives. First, they have very few years of formal schooling, if any. Second, some have been unemployed for extended periods with little prospect of ever finding work in the mainstream economy, while most have never been employed. Last, most come from poor families with no money to travel to the cities and sustain them while they search for work. These factors work against them and further diminish their chances of ever getting paid, secure jobs.

An alternative argument could be made, however, that these young men need to demonstrate agency through making claims and demands for employment from the state. However, such an argument fails to take into account how their historical and current circumstances continue to foreclose opportunities for them to participate in the economy of the country. For men like these, underserved communities like Vonqo are creating a toxic mix of despair, shame and hopelessness coupled with seething anger and unlimited free time with nothing to occupy them except alcohol.

A critical question, thus, is whose responsibility it is to address this problem: Is it the men, the community leaders or the state? In answering this question, we need to ask: Who has the agency, mandate and the resources to do so? I believe that all of these actors have resources, but the state has more. Therefore, it is those at the very top with the most resources who have to address the problems faced by young black rural men. But is there the political will? I think men who experience such unceasing shame are a time bomb.

Sikweyiya is a researcher at the SA Medical Research Council

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