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south africa’s “no accountability” culture festers among its youth

March 14, 2019
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Election years are interesting times because they double as an audit on the state of the country. There is often a flurry of artificial hope sold by political parties stating the case as to why they should lead. There is also a focus on everything that is wrong, accompanied by measures by each party to shift blame away from themselves. As South Africa nears its national elections on May 8th, the climate has emphasized the many cracks in the system, but one pressing failure has come to the fore, eclipsing the others: the growing culture of violence in South African youth.

South African young people already have a history of violence in school due to the history of mandated violence during apartheid. But it was the murder of Thorisa Themane, a 28-year-old Black man, kicked and beaten to death by five teenagers aged 15-16, that presented a brutal tipping point. According to Sowetan Live, the gruesome murder was caught in a video circulated on social media — a medium that has exacerbated the desensitization of the masses to extreme violence. Another startling video later surfaced of a 15-year-old from Capricorn High School in Polokwane who was bragging about being involved in the murder.

In the video, an unknown man asks the teenager, “Mfana ke gore o kwa botse ka gore o bolaile motho? (Do you feel happy that you killed a person?)” His reply is: “Akere ke ya tseba Tyma yaka yena le ka se mo dire selo (I know my father is untouchable].” The notion of being untouchable is an infectious one that invaded the political sphere through public service leaders gaming the system in order to avoid accountability. The father of the teen in the video didn’t understand where the boy got his confidence from and claims his son told him that the victim had stolen a phone, displaying an already prevalent presence of mob justice shown by South Africans. The people’s historic distrust of the police through years of inefficacy and a violent authority resulting in taking justice into their own hands.

In Mondeor, Johannesburg, 13-year-old and two 15-year-olds were just arrested for the fatal stabbing of 19-year-old Kulani Mathebula, on a route they all use to walk to school every day. Witnesses describe the murder as senseless and brutal, also taking place just 200m (600ft) from a police station, according to The Citizen. The perpetrators have been labeled “thugs who don’t deserve to be punished as children,” which is understandable given the violence; but the truth is that they are children, and when kids take to the most heinous forms of adult behavior to “fix their problems,” there is a larger societal failure at play.

When you have a society in which a president vacated his office because of corruption that resulted in R1 trillion (almost $689 billion dollars) were embezzled, but who has never faced any real consequences, what exactly is the lesson for the youth except that consequences don’t matter? The South African police prioritize drug busts and speeding fines over rape and murder. How are children growing up in this society supposed to follow the very rules their elders shirk every day? Parents play a massive part in their children going off the rails, but the bigger reality is that it takes a village, and with the prevalence of cellphones and Internet, the village is getting bigger, the influences harder to control.

Your abusive uncle is the open secret in their families and a bigger pool of people are defending another version of him in the news. That cousin who is a literal danger to younger kids in the family sits unrepentant in court after sexually abusing a little girl. When a girl is murdered and burned by her boyfriend, the outrage is muddied by voices who blame her for inflicting this tragedy on herself, giving young minds the notion that perhaps the morality around violence is up for debate. Especially in the world where “the leader of the free world” the man sold as the bastion of power and influence is a spineless hack whose sole mandate is to make the lives of other people miserable, with a few rounds of golf in between.

To bring it back to the core, South Africa has been captured by a culture of avoiding accountability. No one is to blame and everybody is to blame — but no one knows where to begin. There is no clear leadership in the country and political space is filled with choices that place voters between a rock a hard place. Every day we wake up to a new discovery of how deep the corruption has reached. (Down to the marrow, at last count.)

Some days, the only thing that unites us is hopelessness, and that might be the saddest part. We cannot afford to let this feeling fester further, for the sake of the generations to come. The hopelessness has already manifested itself in chilling ways in the youth, and we can’t afford for them to give up so soon. There are young heroes out there who are losing their lives in this fight against violence and their sacrifice should not be in vain.