Violence in South Africa – have we run out of empathy?


For the most part, violence has always been a part of us. Plagued by a history of violence and unrest, it has undoubtedly shaped the very essence of our society.

Taking South Africa and its history as a rather unique example, I’d say we have all been taught about violence in different ways – 1) some were taught to experience acts of violence, 2) others to inflict violence, 3) and the rest to observe violence from a space of detachment.

I don’t know which group you fall into, one, two or maybe all three, but in all of them there’s a sense of complacency. It’s much like how we have been taught and continue to teach ourselves about rape. If it’s not you being raped, it’s something that happens to others. Like those 305 people who were recently massacred in a mosque in Egypt – these acts of violence have become so disregarded, and because the Egyptian flag isn’t filling up your Instagram and Facebook feed with #PrayForEqypt posts, it is almost a here today, gone tomorrow kind of empathy.

Read: 16 things you can do for 16 Days of Activism

So when we come to this time of year, we see flashes of 16 Days of Activism – 16 days meant to take a stand for violence against women and children  - we see women holding up posters in public asking, once more, to be taken seriously, and the odd ‘empowering’ photo series and series of articles about women sharing their stories of sexual and violence abuse.

Day of action in Vosloorus #thepeoplevsher #16daysofactivism #enough

A post shared by The People Vs Her (@thepeoplevsher) on

But how can we bring about change when all of us were taught so differently about violence? Existing in silos, we stay complacent and will continue to do so until we or someone close to us are personally affected.  Even then, we are left with questions of what do we do, where do we go or refer someone to for help and how to prevent more such acts of violence.

Plan B

This morning I walked past a large group of women in central Cape Town holding up signs, asking the local municipality for help, for change. My initial instinct was to say ‘You go girls’, ‘Yes! Use your voice’.

But thinking more about it I realised the disgraceful situation we find ourselves in.

It’s a disgrace that we have to ask to be safe. That it’s not implied and not addressed.  That women constantly have to ask men for their right to occupy space, to make everyday choices like walking in certain areas or dressing a specific way, just because they are complacent in how they’ve been taught about violence. It’s this complacency that women continue to cater to.  

Unlearning the way we’ve been taught about violence is our biggest struggle – no matter whether you actively participate in the infliction of violence, whether you experience sexual or domestic violence or whether you see it happening to someone else.

Society cannot be fixed with holding up signs and sharing personal experiences of violence.  We need to break the cycle of complacency, so devoid of empathy for others.

How can we actively help to unlearn behaviours and mind-sets that have been so ingrained in us to the point where we are simply living in a violent hell or a violence free limbo of our own making? We need to flip this on its head - instead of just thinking about how things can be fixed after the fact, like getting someone help after being abused, like planning for more safe havens for abused women; we need to strategise and implement more ways these three groups can work together to activate a new age of empathy. 

Our empathy has died as we continue to merely exist in our own experiences of violence. We have to consider what we can learn from each other's violent worlds in order to truly begin a new way of being.

Email us - share your ideas of how we can break out of our siloed views of violence and bring about positive societal change.

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