What is a man?

2009-09-18 00:00

WHY is it that men mostly join organisations and committees where they have some position of power, and rarely offer themselves simply as volunteers who want to make a positive difference? This was just one of the questions posed at the launch of the University of KwaZulu-Natal Men’s Forum (UMF) a few weeks ago. It is the first men’s-only organisation on the local university campus. Its aim is to get male students to voluntarily get involved in community development programmes in the city. The attendance was great. The idea is built on a need to make men think critically about their gender and its impact on their life.

Since the dawn of patriarchy, men have put themselves at the centre of their strong, masculine universe. But wait. Enter the snags (sensitive new-age guys) and the snags’ friends — men who are in touch with their emotions. And their friends — men who readily admit to having problems (gasp) and then (wait for it) even ask for help to solve those problems (double gasp). The idea of what it is to be a man in the new millennium is being redefined. New forms of masculinity are creeping into everyday life, and the implications are many.

At UMF’s launch, keynote speaker Dr Maxwell Phiri spoke of breaking the confines of the stereo­typical African man, who is supposed to find a subservient wife who is less than him in every way, from education to assertiveness. He spoke of his own personal journey of redefining his identity when he got married, so that his wife would have a partner, not a domineering “head” of the house. He spoke empathically of the challenges men face in risking emasculation by becoming fully fledged emotional creatures.

This is an important step forward in light of research showing that 20% of South African men admit to rape. This is a frightening statistic. And if we accept that rape is more about power than about sex, why is it that men feel the need to display this kind of power when they live in a society favoured in their odds anyway? Why is power so important to masculinity? Why is it expressed through rape or domestic violence, which serves to disempower the (female) survivors? What inner turmoil are men experiencing and why do they express it in such inappropriate ways?

Does society offer an appropriate platform for men to deal with their emotions, their self-esteem and their need for control? Are men treated in ways that encourage them to become more violent, confusing self-confidence with self-arrogance? What about the very word “perpetrator”? Is it accurate? What do we target if we want to rehabilitate these men? Their attitudes, their circumstances, their childhood or their family? Or do we look at society and ask ourselves, as members of this society, what role do we play in maintaining the hegemony of a hardened humanity that exists within so many men?

These are tough questions, topics of countless studies and PhDs, and certainly not the obvious agenda of the UMF. But these underlie the central issue that UMF is tackling — encouraging new forms of masculinity that are more adaptive, more flexible, more balanced and more engaged with the people around them, which in turn allows men to better understand themselves and their identities. And the students at the university seem to be taking on the challenge.

The trends are clear. We’ve got Angus Buchan doing his Mighty Men Conference every year in Greytown, the Mankind Project of South Africa, Big Brother Big Sister mentoring programmes the Fatherhood Project and even the spawning of a new genre of “bromantic comedies” like I love you, man, about emotionally deep relationships between heterosexual guys.

“Be a man” is now a complex, difficult, and multifaceted command. And it should be. Being a man should never be straightforward, and negotiating these ambivalent discourses of masculinity will, I hope, improve society’s welfare­.

The success of bodies like the UMF will rest on their ability to get young men to think critically about these issues.

• Suntosh Pillay is an intern clinical psychologist and independent writer.

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