BY TOM LEE
The year of 2019 provided for traumatic scenes in South African history. The deaths of Uyinene Mrwetyana, Jesse Hess and many more young women, instilled an already felt fear into young women pursuing further education around South Africa. The pervasive safety issues, and disregard to women’s personal identities experienced by women in South Africa was eventually met by President Cyril Ramaphosa addressing the nation with promises to amend the Criminal Justice System and its punishments imposed on men who abuse women. This, however, has its limitations. Retaliation of such a manner will only single out individual perpetrators from committing serious crimes against women and lacks the ability to rectify the effects of toxic masculinity amongst mortals in society.
The question of adequate reform, in my opinion, can only be answered by singling out the institutions which allow for macho masculinity to pass through into society.
One such problematic institution links to a large majority of Stellenbosch University males, this being boys’ high schools.
The phrase “Boys will be boys” is a well-known excuse and cover up for the traits associated with misogyny and sexism that riddle the society that we currently live in. The recent events have allowed people in South Africa to start questioning these traits and how these traits can be eradicated from society.
The aim of eradicating these traits will have no effect if the root of the problem is not identified. It is important to note that these traits have a closer nest than one could perceive.
The first of these proverbial nests emerged in South Africa in 1829 and in my opinion ever have provided as a socialization mechanism for the ingraining of toxic masculinity into these so called “boys” over the decades. The traditions associated with boy’s high schools supposedly filter through characteristics such as strength, courage, honour, integrity and respect.
This is, however, to a larger extent, false, for in these patriarchal institution’s characteristics such as entitlement, disrespect, secretive behaviour, immorality, sexism and misogyny emerge and become a part of young men’s psyche.
Traditionally, when a young grade eight boy arrives for his first day at school, he is told that he is the equivalent to “a shark’s sh*t shadow” and that essentially, he amounts to nothing in the school community. The year is generally one of hardship, filled with emotional abuse and sometimes physical abuse, which has been seen at schools around the Country. The subsequent years see a young boy becoming witness to three years of similar abuse. Finally, the final year of school is one of excitement and joy. It is also a year which sees most matrics in boys’ high schools becoming perpetrators of the same emotional and physical abuse thus perpetuating institutional short-comings and reproducing toxic masculinity.
The vicious cycle of abuse continues throughout. The vulnerable grade 8s are preyed upon and the adolescent “manne” seem to find their best pick when it comes down to who will receive the brunt of the rough housing, that supposedly allows these boys to just be boys.
What then happens when the floodgates are opened, and the youth are set free into the tertiary education sector? This is where the patriarchal traits that are instilled in boy’s high shools become more problematic. What does a matriculant boy do with such traits now that he doesn’t have a junior to take it out on, to carry his bags, to run to the tuckshop for him or to whack a few tennis balls at?
Well, maybe this behaviour transitions into a sexist whatsapp chat or a few catcalls aimed at women, who knows what else could materialize.
These traditions coupled with boys being isolated in a single gender school allows for toxic masculinity to become second nature to most who are ignorant enough to reject notions of equality.
Perhaps this cycle of abuse doesn’t only start once a male matriculant leaves his prestigious school. Perhaps this abuse takes place during the high school career of young boys. The first instance of gender based abuse that I witnessed and can vividly remember was in grade 10. It took place in my mathematics class.
The bright flash of a phone camera lit up the entire classroom and sent the whole class into a frenzy. In the meanwhile, the female substitute teacher went red in the face and rushed out the classroom in utter embarrassment. Imagine that! A 16-year-old boy taking an upskirt photo of a teacher who was merely doing her job. The entitlement of young boys, both to violate a woman in a position of authority and perpetuate masculinity which subjugated her, as a result of her gender must surely constitute gender-based violence.
Despite the institutional power dynamic of a teacher-pupil relationship, which ought to have protected the substitute teacher, male entitlement empowered a young boy to exercise his masculine privilege in a way that constituted gendered violence as it violated her personhood and consent.
It is these cycles which, once instilled in high school, repeat themselves throughout life.