Why have university protests been so violent?

Factors that fuel male aggression are key to understanding this worrying phenomenon

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Photo of student protester throwing rock
A student protester throws a rock towards security guards during a protest at Wits University.
Photo: Ihsaan Haffejee

Why have the most recent waves of protest at South Africa’s tertiary institutions been so violent? Many of the protesting groups have pointed to pent-up pain, alienation and anguish that black people have had to endure as a consequence of centuries of structural violence as the obvious cause. Others, with more pejorative prejudices, have indignantly declared that it is akin to toddler tantrum, brought about by impatience, selfishness and an ingrained sense of self-entitlement. In very crude terms, it is probably a partial concoction of both, with added intricacy, and a great big portion of hyper-aggressive masculinity.

The recent acts of intimidation, physical violence, vandalism and destruction of property have propagated considerable fear throughout most campuses. The intensity of violence has varied between universities with many tertiary institutions having closed as a result. Critically, only a small number of individuals at each institution have committed such violence, most of which are young men. The journey of these students towards these acts of aggression more than likely began well before they entered the university system. Many other students and sympathisers have been involved in the protest actions, but most have not thrown punches, rocks and petrol bombs.

Robust theories of interpersonal violence tell us that the actual perpetration of interpersonal violence is typically the combination and sequencing of a series of risk factors a person will experience over time in their family life, the various communities in which they inhabit, and society in general.

Two of the prominent red flags are an unstable family life and being exposed to various forms of physical and emotional violence on a regular basis at home and/or in one’s neighbourhood and school. These factors are a current reality for many young South Africans. However, most people with such a background are unlikely to automatically resort to violence. Essential catalysts are required, which usually takes the form of the abuse of alcohol or drugs, and/or being socialised into forms of pro-violence masculinity.

Such masculinity embraces notions of manhood that reveres dominant men who are prone to express themselves through aggression, and see violence as a legitimate way of asserting their power and resolving conflict. Kopano Ratele, the foremost scholar on masculinity in South Africa, has aptly described this form of masculinity as “always ready for a fight, never show fear, ignore pain, and play it cool”. Its cuts across class and race divisions, and has deep historical roots. It is commonly observed in bar brawls and road rage incidents, and critically it is one of the key drivers of murder, serious assault and various forms of men’s violence against women.

This form of masculinity is highly carcinogenic and contagious, especially when young men that have similar risk profiles and common value systems are frequently in close proximity to each other. The classic example is the high levels of violence associated with cowboys in the ‘Old West’ frontier towns in the USA, which saw young, belligerent men band together, with the outcome often being lethal confrontations.

Similar violence, albeit less deadly, has been associated with the ill-famed football hooliganism in the UK, which has involved supporters of opposing football clubs staging, or actively provoking mass fights. Comparable circumstances have played themselves out in South African hostels, the densely populated housing complexes that were constructed under apartheid to house black migrant labourers. That is, the conditions and dynamics within these hostels have spawned fatal forms of masculinity, which were on display in last year’s xenophobic attacks.

Across universities in South Africa the recent protests have been comprised of a broad church of student activists and outsourced workers, but have also seen the convergence of individuals with strong pro-violence masculinities into coherent and goal-oriented groups that have embraced a type of ‘protest masculinity’. This variety of masculinity, as suggested by scholars of gender relations such as Raewyn Connell and Gregory Walker, entails aggressive and destructive challenges to ‘hegemonic’ masculinity, and is characterised by a type of narcissism that emerges from a sense of powerlessness and insecurity. It has characteristically been observed among poor, working class men who have displayed hyper-macho behaviour due to their lowly socioeconomic status in society.

In the South African university context this hegemonic masculinity has often been interpreted as that masculinity displayed by privileged white men, which student activists claim has become embedded in the character, practices and leadership of the tertiary institutions. Student protest spokespersons have frequently articulated that they are agitating for institutional transformation, as black students and staff are purportedly victimised, disempowered and subjugated by South African universities. A few protestors have crassly expressed their loathing of this form of hegemonic masculinity through “fuck white people” graffiti and t-shirts. In some universities, such as the University of Cape Town, “kill white people” has recently been scrawled on chalkboards.

Recent events have shown us that this combined antipathy towards the status quo in universities has been converted into physical violence in circumstances when tightknit groups of those more prone to violence dictate the direction of the protest without any moderating factors being in place. Furthermore, violence is almost inevitable when groups displaying protest masculinity collide with opposing groups that also embrace pro-violence masculinity, such as battle-hardened private security, militarised Public Order Police, and infuriated rugby fans (as was the case at University of the Free State earlier this year).

Pro-violence masculinity has essentially become a type of battering ram of a number student protest movements to compel universities to prioritise more meaningful institutional transformation, both in terms of race and class, as well as a fee-free education. However, such an approach is a double-edged sword, as this form of masculinity, by its very nature, closes down the space for open debate. This is highly problematic as dialogue and discussion are the life-blood of any reputable university, and the only realistic way that universities will be able to navigate a pathway towards meaningful transformation.

Lamb is the Director of the Safety and Violence Initiative at the University of Cape Town.

Views expressed are not necessarily GroundUp’s.

TOPICS:  Tertiary Education Violence

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Write a letter in response to this article


Dear Editor

I would be interested to know if anyone has done any investigation into whether the violence has been fuelled by agents provocateurs? It mighf suit some people to have an excuse for declaring a state of emergency and suppressing all opposition, not only on campuses.

Dear Editor

I feel the need to express my concern with this article and the one-sided story it tells, or rather, the one-sided question it asks. While I feel that the author makes an important point regarding why some students have used violence as a means of protest, it doesn't even touch on the gratuitous violence that is being used by police across the country at the moment.

I feel strongly about the issues of masculinity and power that are touched upon, but I can't believe that Mr Lamb does not think it important to address how this manifests itself within the police force as well. Many of the men who go on to become policemen come from the exact same poverty-stricken, unstable homes that the author claims may have shaped the students. A sense of mob-mentality combined with a need to "be a man" is the reason many police have opened fire unnecessarily on students (most recently Shaeera Kalla) and will continue to do so.

In short, I feel that this article is extremely lacking in nuance by not acknowledging the role the police have played in the violence of these protests. It paints a dangerous narrative of the students as more violent than the police, and doesn't convey the fact that there is a serious issue of police brutality in South Africa.

I'd really advise a follow up article looking at why our police force retaliate to unarmed student protesters in the violent way that they do, and an acknowledgment that the same factors that have caused students to be violent have also contributed to how the police react to violence (with violence, as opposed to trying to diffuse the situation).

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