Violent crime committed by young boys or men against their friends, their families, their neighbours and complete strangers is of deep concern in South Africa. Many factors are known to have contributed: poverty, the experience of violence from the authorities during the long years of apartheid, frustration at seeing no future in a context of unemployment, increasing use of alcohol, the rise in numbers of street children, fathers being away from their families – either by choice or while job-seeking.
But the situation may be more complex than that. In 1997, I heard a social worker from the Durban courts telling the Inter-ministerial Committee on Young People at Risk about young people who were involved in crime (she was talking about all crime, not just violence, but I’m using her insights to make a point). She emphasised that the perpetrators did not conform to media stereotypes; they were not mostly street children, although some were; nor were they all traumatised youth, though again some were.
A high percentage of the young people appearing in court, were living with their families and were in school; their families were poor but not from the poorest of the poor. So, the question arises, why are they turning to crime? The answer is not so obvious.
In Britain, where, although there is a huge gap between rich and poor, social security gives a basic income (very basic) to those who cannot find work. Yet, since the 1980s there has been a large increase in the number of young men committing violent acts against other people. There has also been an increase in teenage pregnancies (the highest rate in Europe). Youth involvement in drugs is growing. The factors that the Labour government have identified as contributing to destructive behaviour in young people are: poverty, social exclusion and maternal depression.
Poverty and Violence
Oliver James is a psychologist who researches social issues. His 1997 book Juvenile Violence in a Winner-Loser Culture attempts to find out exactly what it is about poverty that seems to lead to an increase in violence in young men. His conclusions are:
Low income for families causes depression in parents, and most importantly, in mothers, and depressed mothers bring up depressed and angry children.
A “winner/loser” culture portrays owning possessions as the most important symbol of social status and identity. This makes those who do not own the right car/ house/ jacket/ bank or store account feel like “losers” (social exclusion) instead of just poor – thus creating conditions for aggression.
What I thought was important about his research was that it showed how poverty created the conditions for violence. The link is psychological as well as social and economic. It is because of how poverty makes people feel about themselves, and others, that violence becomes a way of getting rid of these painful and unmanageable emotions.
Social exclusion has been targeted in the British government’s anti-poverty campaign.
Oliver James comments on the need for this in Juvenile Violence. In the 1980s, James says, Britain became more unequal than at any other time since 1945. Unemployment increased, wages were lower, and the quality of work available for the poor became worse. At the same time the UK developed a “winner-loser” culture. In this new culture, he argues, people with low incomes were judged as inadequate morally, intellectually, and emotionally. It was not only being poor that was against you, it was the attitude of society that being poor meant you did not belong.
He points out that it was only in the mid-1980s that the consumer culture idealising the lifestyles of the wealthy “sex 'n' shopping" novels and TV soap operas based on Hollywood lifestyles – emerged in the UK. This reinforced the idea that only being rich was worthwhile, which made poor young people feel even worse about themselves.
Poverty and depression
James does admit that there is no absolute proof that the winner-loser culture is responsible for the rise in juvenile violence. But there is a lot of research that suggests that poverty leads to depression in mothers, and that depression in mothers is linked to boy children becoming aggressive as teenagers, and girl children becoming depressed.
Research shows that violence is associated with being male, young and from a low-income family. Women from the same type of families will tend to be depressed, maybe misuse alcohol, or otherwise take out their violent feelings on themselves.
The difference between the families of violent and non-violent males from low-income families is explained by the presence of parental abuse, parents arguing and parents being constantly irritable. This irritability and disharmony means that children get very little positive loving attention. Their parents are worried and angry and may punish children too harshly or shout at them too much.
Depressed mothers are more likely to be irritable; and poor mothers are significantly more likely to be depressed than other mothers. Obviously mothers who have money worries are more depressed, so children in poor families are doubly disadvantaged: no money in the family and, in some cases no loving attention from their mother either.
Irritable mothers are more likely to use inconsistent, arbitrary, neglectful or abusive parenting styles that lead to aggressive boy children, and depressed girls. Children who are punished for no good reason do not easily understand the difference between right and wrong. Children who are constantly told they are naughty or stupid become depressed and stop listening to adults.
Boys who are aggressive in childhood are more likely to be violent as adults.
Because of the severity of economic deprivation and inequality in South Africa, explanations of violent or criminal behaviour are often fairly mechanistic. Sometimes the personal experience of individuals is lost in the political analysis. What might be interesting is to talk more about how family and personal experience is linked to the social, economic and cultural realities already implicated in the “crime wave”.
Offering psychological support for poor mothers and fathers so that they can – despite their difficulties – be more available to listen to and love their children would be important in preventing this pattern passing onto a second generation. Community, family and professional support for depressed mothers might be more effective in preventing crime in the long run, than putting more money into police and prisons. This is one of the reasons the UK government is funding the Sure Start programme.
Combating the lie of “you can have it all!”
James asks the interesting question of why have the British become more, rather than less, violent over the last forty years, when they have become several times richer, not poorer? Why are Third World nations not violent to the same degree? He concludes that relative inequality in incomes, combined with the false promise of equality of opportunity – the American “anyone can run for president” is cited as a prime example – together with the “American style” lack of welfare support for disadvantaged families and low job quality are the major causes of violence in developing and developed nations alike.
James takes this argument further in his more recent book, Britain on the Couch (1998). It seems that it is only when things get better that “trouble starts”. “Under complete oppression – such as in the USSR and South Africa – it was very hard to imagine anything different, and people didn’t feel entitled. Now that the TV is offering all the goodies you can have (and in practice, if you’re poor, you can’t) it starts to be very frustrating”. He comments that this consumer culture locates the cause of relative poverty in the individual, even when they have no practical means of advancing themselves. People tell themselves that “It is no longer external circumstances to blame; if I can’t have it, it’s my fault".
In Britain on the Couch, James looks at how a winner-loser culture removes the restraints imposed by community, – “specially the channelling of frustration into political action”. This is replaced by the idea that competition is a virtue, and those who don’t or can’t compete are losers.
Depression and comparing yourself to others
He also looks at the effects of social comparison, at how people who are depressed make upward social comparisons ("How come I’m not as successful/ beautiful/loved as he/she is?") rather than downward ("How come I’m better off than them?") which increase the sense of isolation and humiliation. When downward comparisons are made by depressed people, it is often with a realistic sense of the practical limitations faced by people “worse off than ourselves”. This is not applied to the self; people criticise themselves for not being better off (and they forget that those who are doing better may have had unfair advantages to begin with). And envy? “We can go two ways with envy", James says. “Communities can decide to contain it by co-operation, or get into competitiveness which only increases it. The latter can encourage the conditions for violence" .
Perhaps because of the isolation of South Africa from the West during the final years of apartheid and the community solidarity built up during the struggle for democracy, we are not yet in the grip of a “winner-loser” culture. However the dissolution of community structures, as parliamentary democracy replaced local organisation, has, in an odd way, opened the door for this winner/loser culture. Despite the call for Ubuntu there seems to have been a shift from community solidarity to a “money equals status” hierarchy. Not that there is anything wrong with people having money; it is just that over-valuing only money in a country where so many people are trapped in poverty, means that half the population are defined as “losers” by that value system.
It is true that community action for economic justice might do more than mental health projects to alleviate the depression that comes from a desperate struggle to survive. But, as the experience in the UK shows, there is more to people than money or the lack of it.
Feeling loved, cared for and appreciated, are powerful supports that money cannot buy, and that even those who are poor can have. This is not, as the U K research shows, just “touchy feely” psychology; it is a crucial element in building a safe and secure society.
James, O. (1995). Juvenile Violence in a Winner-Loser Culture: Socio-Economic and Familial Origins of the Rise of Violence Against the Person. London: Free Association Books.
Reprinted from ChildrenFIRST