OPINION | We need a lockdown on toxic masculinities

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Anger and violence spikes when income is lost and uncertainty about future work arises, writes Leballo Tjemolane.


Just as Covid-19 has laid bare the problems of a business-as-usual global system, where capitalism runs rampant, and where the planet as a life support system is disregarded, so has the virus opened our eyes to the high global incidence of gender-based violence.

It seems in South Africa intimate partner violence (mostly against women) goes hand in hand with the lockdown. In the first week, news reports revealed 87 000 cases of gender-based violence were reported. Anger and violence spikes when income is lost and where uncertainty about future work arises.

There is no time like now, as we mobilise efforts to combat a public health disaster and re-organise our global system, to address a key driver of gender-based violence - toxic masculinity. Looking through a gendered lens during this uncertain time presents an opportunity to reflect on what it means to be a "man" in South African society.

Simply put, toxic masculinity is constructed around power and dominance. It is a product of a society that has normalised violence and made aggression synonymous with being male.

We hear that "a man is a leader", “a man is a provider”, "a man is strong and displays no vulnerability in any way" and "a man is not a natural nurturer". Ironically, in the persistently poor socio-economic environment, many South African men are deprived of fulfilling these predetermined roles and those that fail to be "men" are judged for being "useless", absent fathers, and untrustworthy.

Professors Malose Langa and Brett Bowman, who are prolific researchers on masculinity in South Africa, note the use of violence by men is an attempt to address the experiences of being a "half-life" or part citizen in a highly unequal and poverty stricken country. Violence, they say, becomes a kind of currency to manage exclusion or seek inclusion.

This failure to be a "man" is exacerbated in the time of the nationwide Covid19 lockdown.

But all hope is not lost.

Professor Kopano Ratele says ending violence and promoting gender equality depends on giving birth to new progressive masculinities and to nourish family structures.

In his book, The World Look Like This From Here, Ratele says a meaningful life for men is possible if Africa is at the centre of their line of vision and experience. Programmes to show how American and Western influences of patriarchy can be overcome in healing, teaching and learning are imperative.

In an interview, Ratele said: "Perhaps the most important thing is to teach boys about kindness, self-love, care for others, and healthy relationships in order to enhance equality and new progressive boyhood and manhood."

My own academic work considers the joys, struggles, challenges, successes, failures, fears, and hopes that make up the aspirations of South African men. Men's lived experiences and narratives are an essential part of my study because there is still a lack of focus on men's voices regarding the complexities of being a man in the post-1994 context.

Men's voices are not silenced in the way women's voices are in a patriarchal society. However, men's voices on being male and how that intersects with other social identities and inequalities, like being poor or from a marginalised or othered group, are silenced.  

My study will bring into conversation men's voices to find productive and sustainable ways of creating space, policies and programmes that can address gender equity issues from a different perspective. My study's interest is men and the multiple contesting and contradictory contexts that enhance or undermine their capacity to embrace positive gender equitable pro-feminist masculinities.

While discussions about the changes in economic, ecological and social life during and post Covid-19 lockdowns are "hot", it is time to ask ourselves, "Could a new order free men to be something else and not what we have labelled them in a patriarchal society?" There are as many expressions of what it means to be a man. Patriarchy has alienated men from authentically expressing who and what they are.

 - Leballo Tjemolane is currently a PhD candidate in the Women's and Gender Studies Department at the University of the Western Cape. His studies are supported by the DSI-NRF Centre of Excellence in Human Development (CoE-HUMAN), hosted at Wits University. Langa, Bowman and Ratele are all affiliated to the CoE-HUMAN.

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