12 March 2008

Have we lost the moral plot?

The news is dominated by horror stories ranging from attacks on women in short skirts to demeaning initiation ceremonies at universities. Why is South African society so angry?

Only three months into a new year and already the news is dominated by horror stories ranging from attacks on women in short skirts to demeaning initiation ceremonies at universities. Why is South African society so angry? Is crime the cause or the result of this anger? Amy Henderson tries to unpick the fragile seams of our society's psyche.

"We are a very angry nation at this time – one can mention all the negatives, such as hatred, disrespect, racism, envy and greed - all rampant in our country, but there are also many other reasons why we are an angry society," said Dr Irma Labuschagne, a forensic criminologist.

Broken promises and misunderstandings
She believes that the anger and frustration afflicting our society today is a result of many problems, both current and from the past.

"Before, and ever since independence, numerous promises were made and millions of people truly believed that their lives would change dramatically and quickly. They believed they would have proper accommodation, free education, good and free medical care, employment – all of which they had never had access to before. But the message was sold that all this would actually change immediately; it was never said that with every human right comes a responsibility, or that it would take a long, long time for all the good things to happen.

"Years into the new disposition, nothing has really changed for many millions. But they still see the affluence surrounding them, across all races, and they are getting angrier and angrier and more frustrated by the day. This anger and frustration does not bode well for the country and could spill over in a revolution if left unchecked," Labuschagne warned.

What's making us angry?
South Africa is still plagued by the injustices of its past, and Labuschagne believes that there are perceptions that some people are unfairly getting more than others.

"If there is a widespread perception among some people that others are doing well financially and are fulfilled in their jobs, some may think that they deserve far more than they are getting. This sense of deprivation develops when people compare their own positions with others – that goes for the working environment, and even in neighbourhoods. Expectations are often raised unrealistically fast, and this situation may contribute to crime," she said.

As an example, she said that she often "wondered how the millions of helpless and vulnerable people in informal settlements feel when they look at the huge constructions going up for the 2010 World Cup, as those stadiums will not change one iota of their dismal lives.

"On the other hand, we have many very angry people who perceive their life’s work disappearing in front of their eyes – aggressive affirmative action did cause many to lose their jobs, and there are white people who now live in abject poverty with no hope for their or their children's future, and therefore have become angry and frustrated people."

Priorities all wrong
According to Labuschagne, many South Africans have their priorities all wrong, and this is one of the things contributing to a nation which feels hard done by. She believes that as a society, we are desensitised to the point where material possessions mean more to the average person than something as intrinsic as family.

"We accentuate human rights without ever mentioning responsibilities; we have become materialised to such an extent that we overlook all else and good old-fashioned family values have been thrown out of the window. By working so hard to earn money for the extra family car or the swimming pool or the designer clothes, we end up paying the price of time spent with our children. Then we throw money at them and drop them off at shopping malls just to get rid of them, or we use the television set as a ‘child minder’. Many people rarely find the time to sit with their children and explain certain things," she said.

She added that another problem is how desensitised the South African society has become – be it with regard to crime or the violation of human rights.

"Remember a time when one would turn away from the television when dead and mutilated bodies were shown? And now one calmly finishes a meal while watching death and destruction. We have all become desensitised to human suffering."

Examining specific cases
When asked about incidents such as the alleged abuse of black cleaning staff by white students at the University of the Free State, Labuschagne said, "I have heard it said that these boys did not really grow up under apartheid – so where does the terrible racism come from? Perhaps – and this is in no way any form of an excuse for their behaviour, but merely an attempt at explaining their thinking – they are in fact part of the new generation who feel very threatened by their whiteness.

"Being white is not a passport to everything; it means that they will have to work very hard to procure employment and so on, as the competition is just so much stronger now.

"They may even perceive themselves being in the same position black youth were in the old era. What they do not understand is that they can never be in the same position, as the black youth under apartheid had no chances at all. But anger and frustration do cause a lot of irrational thoughts and can eventually spill over in disrespectful and destructive behaviour," she said.

Getting back on track
So, with all this anger and frustration hanging like a dark cloud over the nation that was once full of hope for the future – is there any light at the end of the tunnel? Labuschagne believes there is, although it will need every South African's participation.

One of the first steps, Labuschagne said, is to recognise the problems and take responsibility for them while becoming more sensitive and accepting of each other on a daily basis:

Take responsibility: "In the first place, we should be honest with ourselves and stop blaming everyone around us without taking responsibility for our own behaviour. We cannot forever blame the past, and we cannot blame the present!

Respect: "We can never force people to love and respect each other unless they earn that love and respect and we will all have to learn that we are diverse and different in many ways, none of which means we are lesser people because we are different.

Accepting each other: "All of us are born with a clean slate – and none of us have ever, or will ever, be able to choose the colour of our skins. Once we all accept that fact, we will be easier on each other, I believe.

"None of us deserve anything. All of us must earn and work very hard for all we hope to achieve," she concluded.

Source: Dr Irma Labuschagne, forensic criminologist

(Amy Henderson, Health24, March 2008)

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