A voice against violence

South Africa is one of the most violent African countries not currently in a state of war. In 2013, it was ranked 121 out of 162 countries on the Global Peace Index, having slipped 27 places since 2008.

The Safety and Violence Initiative (SaVI) at UCT continues to draw attention to the need to address these high levels of crime and violence. Established in 2011 as one of four key institution-wide strategic research initiatives to address critical social challenges, SaVI is mobilising research, both inside UCT and beyond, into the causes of violent crime and its possible solutions.

SaVI has a very active calendar and hosts regular events to facilitate debate and discussion on these issues. In February 2013, it also contributed to the organisation of a successful and memorable march on campus precipitated by the murders of Anene Booysen and Reeva Steenkamp, where staff and students rallied to protest against the unacceptably high levels of violence against women.

Violence against women and children

While no sector of the South African population remains unaffected by violence, children and women have experienced disproportionately high levels of violence, both as observers and victims, compared to those in other countries with available data.

In December 2013, the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) contracted SaVI to co-ordinate a research project on violence against women and children in South Africa. Based at UCT, this programme is run in partnership with the Children’s Institute and draws on expertise from researchers in the Department of Sociology, Department of Psychology, Division of Nursing and Midwifery, and the Gender, Health and Justice Research Unit, as well as the Human Sciences Research Council (HSRC). The findings of the project will generate evidence-based analysis, modelling and recommendations on issues related to violence against women and children in South Africa, including its reduction and prevention.

In related work, SaVI has also commissioned Associate Professor Sinegugu Duma of the Division of Nursing and Midwifery, with supervisory support from Professor Naeema Abrahams of the Medical Research Council (MRC), to undertake a survey of attitudes towards sexual violence in its own backyard – in UCT residences. Focus-group research with the incoming (2014) house committees of UCT residences has been undertaken and the research project will be completed in 2014.

Young, high and dangerous

While children are often on the receiving end of violence in South Africa, the rise of youth gangs in Cape Town means that they are now frequently also perpetrators of violence.

The Western Cape Government’s Integrated Provincial Violence Prevention Policy Framework (2013) prioritises the reduction of youth violence and describes gangsterism as something that is “endemic in the province and increasingly affects young people at school-going level”. Despite this, research on gangs and gang violence is underdeveloped in South Africa.

In May 2014, SaVI published its first volume of essays on safety and violence, focusing on youth gangs and violence in Khayelitsha, entitled Young, High and Dangerous: Youth gangs and violence in Khayelitsha. This is among the first formal research projects into the emerging phenomenon of gangs in this area, one of the fastest-growing townships in South Africa, with a mixture of formal and informal housing and high levels of poverty and unemployment.

The SaVI study suggested that gangsterism is indeed pervasive in Khayelitsha, where loosely structured gangs of adolescents now regularly and openly engage in mass armed combat with each other. It disrupts schooling and undermines community cohesion, and its containment is beyond the techniques of conventional policing. The research will feed into the dialogue around developing a suitable response to this crisis at policy level.

Substance abuse and violence

SaVI research is also making a notable contribution to the policy debate on the issue of substance abuse and violence through a series of research projects on the relationship between violence and substance abuse in Cape Town in 2013. One of the projects, led by the Department of Surgery, investigated substance abuse in injured patients presenting to the Groote Schuur Hospital Trauma Centre over a two-month period. Another project, directed by the Department of Psychiatry and Mental Health, tested an intervention for substance users attending trauma clinics in the Western Cape.

In early 2013, SaVI and the Centre for Social Science Research (CSSR) hosted a workshop to interrogate the link between alcohol and violence in South Africa: it included medical researchers, who know about violence because injured patients arrive at clinics (and bodies arrive at mortuaries); social scientists, who often encounter drinking while studying violence, or vice versa; and practitioners, who are trying to effect successful interventions to reduce violence through addressing drinking. The workshop was the first step in a process to harness research for a better understanding of the link between alcohol and violence.

Influencing the future

“SaVI has a clear social-responsiveness objective, constructively engaging with both government and civil-society organisations, and adopts an interdisciplinary approach with a view to undertaking transdisciplinary work on violence reduction and safety promotion,” says Guy Lamb, who was appointed as director of SaVi in late 2012.

“UCT academics and students can contribute to filling the knowledge gaps on violence, and try to provide some answers to the complex questions about this phenomenon. This knowledge has the potential to shift policy and legislation when required. Also, where there is interest or are requests from civil society organisations and communities affected by violence, such knowledge can be used to shape and implement violence prevention strategies and programmes. Universities are the training grounds for many future leaders in government, the private sector and non-governmental organisations. A comprehensive programme on understanding and responding to violence can influence strategic thinking in the future.”

SaVI is one of the key institution-wide initiatives introduced by the Vice-Chancellor to address critical social problems, part of UCT’s strategic goal to expand and enhance the university’s contribution to South Africa’s development challenges. These are intended to be interdisciplinary, drawing on and integrating skills and knowledge across the university, so that they can attempt to answer the complexity of each of these challenges. The African Climate and Development Initiative (ACDI) and the Poverty and Inequality Initiative (PII) are covered elsewhere in this report (see particularly p74 and p86).

Featured image: The handsign of the 28s prison gang. Image: Don Pinnock.

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