Men who cannot love women

Photo Credit: Deposit Photo

The stories are appalling – I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve heard women telling me how their ex-boyfriend or husband smashed furniture or windows, beat them up or have even broken bones.

There is nothing new in this grim litany of rage and cruelty.  Violence against women runs deep in South Africa.  I know some – even many – of the men who have committed these acts, and the thing that angers me most about their behaviour is that most of them cannot see that they have done anything wrong.  I’m not a psychologist, but I wonder at the link between narcissism and violence.  These men are glutted with self-pity.  They stare into the world around them; into the frightened eyes of their wives, lovers and children and can see nothing else but their own pain and fear reflected back at them.  How they snap and turn to violence and, then, how they justify their behaviour to others and, especially, to themselves is hard to understand.

It is, of course, a human failing – for both men and women alike – to be all too often blind to the pain of others.  It is perhaps the one common theme of all great religions and spiritual teachings to teach us to reach out beyond the limits of ourselves and understand the anguish of others.  And we fall short.  That is the fate of being imperfect human beings.  There can be no doubt that these men are experiencing the pain of rejection and misunderstanding.  They are all suffering from feelings of failure, frustration and low self-esteem.  Many of them are, paradoxically, terribly frightened deep within themselves.

To snap once under extreme duress can be forgiven.  But, how, time after time, these men can hit and brutalize the women who love them; how they can excuse these repeated acts of ruthlessness is a question I find difficult to answer.

Partly the answer can be found in our society.  It is a truism to state that South Africa is a particularly violent country, and that our history is one of centuries of dehumanizing abuse.  South Africa might be extreme, but it is not unique.  All countries in the world have a legacy of violence – history itself is nothing more than an unreliable witness to our human urge to cruelty.

I suspect that violence will always be with us.  Perhaps it is a failure of vision on my part, but I cannot imagine a world without aggression.  Certainly, I don’t see one emerging any time soon.  Of course, we do not have to meekly accept the reality of violence, but we should not delude ourselves that we can eliminate it merely by good intentions.

Society, for a start, is not a helpless bystander – much can be, and, in this country, has been done to strengthen laws against domestic violence and to heighten awareness of the problem.  More must still be done.  Women’s groups, politicians, social workers, lawyers, police officers can all play a vital role in finding ways to limit, and prevent, the abuse of women.

But the real responsibility for teaching boys not to abuse women lies within us, as men.  We must ask ourselves what it is that we teach our sons and grandsons; our nephews, our younger brothers, our godsons, our juniors at school?  How do we teach them to deal with their very real – and often valid – feelings of anger?  Rage has been with us always.  From the opening lines of the oldest literature in the world, Homer’s Iliad, to the writings of Franz Fanon and Steve Biko, rage is at the heart of the human condition.  As every oppressed person or every battered woman knows, to feel rage is the first step to being liberated.

But rage should not have to lead automatically to violence.  To hit fast and hard may well be an appropriate response if someone breaks into your house and tries to harm you or your family, but it is not at all acceptable to lash out with your fists because you are angry with your wife for burning the soup or for buying curtains that you don’t think you can afford, or even, frankly, if you discover she is having an affair with another man.  That is what we men have to teach our boys.  For the truth is that the males who commit these acts of violence against women are not men. They are boys who have never grown up. Physically, they have the power and strength of men, but somehow their emotions have remained trapped in the world of childhood.  Like Peter Pan, they exist in an emotional Never-Never land where they can defeat nasty, scary pirates with their swords and women are forever sweet, pliant girls or pretty fairies.  When reality drags them out of this numbing cartoon version of the world, they rampage like angry children, smashing and hurting anyone around them who is weaker than they are.  It is a shameful way to exist.

The truth is that all men are in some ways responsible for this behaviour.  Brutality echoes down the generations.  What is it that men have taught each other over the ages?  We have to look inside ourselves to find where the patterns of violence exist in our own inner lives, where these patterns have diminished us and numbed our own authentic emotional growth.  We have to discover within ourselves the places where they have taught us to remain trapped as boys inside our own feelings of pain and fear.  Violence may always exist in our flawed world, but true courage, true manhood, is to conquer, or, at least control, that urge within ourselves.

Winner of the Standard Bank Sikuvile Journalism Awards for Columns and Opinion, 2023.

Winner of the 2022 National Press Club’s Journalist of the Year: Print/Online Features/ Investigative Journalism Award.

Author of 10 novels, including Red Air and House of War.

Author of a best-selling children’s adventure series called Arabella.

In television, he has worked for a number of international networks, including National Geographic, CNN, BBC, NBC, Al Jazeera English, ZDF, and ARD.

He has written hundreds of articles for publications including BBC, National Geographic Traveler, GQ, Maclean’s Magazine in Canada, TravelAfrica in the UK, The New Zealand Herald, The Buffalo News in the US, The Sunday Times, Business Day, The Sunday Independent in Johannesburg and many others.