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Crime and Family Life in South Africa

The recently-concluded first phase of the Synod on the Family has focussed the attention of the Church on many aspects of the family and its potential for evangelisation. But many of the widely-reported controversies remain distant and theoretical in the face of more pressing threats to family life in South Africa, and I daresay many of the other countries on the continent.

The murder of Senzo Meyiwa, a celebrated soccer star is front-page news, and dominating social media. His shocking death has stunned our nation. This young man was a symbol of hope and an inspiration for many young South Africans. His tragic death reminds us of the reality we live with, that ours is a violent society.  South Africa is not the poorest country in the world. But we are one of the most violent. Apartheid and colonialism have left us with deep psychological wounds.

The greatest harm we suffer from Apartheid is one we rarely talk about. It is a subtle damage done to our sense of self and to our sense of others. For generations people were regarded as things. The mines’ demand for cheap labour was used to justify the 1913 Natives Land Act, and the migrant labour system which forced people to migrate from their rural family homes to obtain work in the mines or the cities. However, only the labourers were permitted to stay in the cities. This effectively broke up families for months on end while the breadwinner was labouring in the formal economy.

This profound shattering of family life continues today. Most South African children are not brought up by both parents, and nor were their parents or grandparents. This disruption is not primarily as a result of any wilful choice by their parents to abandon their children, but as a result of socio-economic pressures, many of which were knowingly imposed by the state in order to create a situation of cheap labour. In the post-Apartheid era this interference in family life continues and has worsened with the rise of HIV-AIDS and the illness and deaths of many parents. Some of the extreme violence we see in our country is a direct consequence of the many children who have been inadequately loved or parented themselves. The nature of our violence, whilst it is often economically motivated, is also domestic, and frequently targets the most vulnerable.

We are a damaged and damaging people. Children who have been abused, neglected or raped, are more likely to grow up to be violent adults. In a context where we know that family life is seriously compromised, we also know that our education system is failing. While schooling can never replace the love and formation of the home, it seems that most South African schooling has further failed children in the secondary system that should support them.  It has shifted from the ‘education for servitude’ of the past to ‘education for unemployment.’  Little wonder then that our youth are so angry and violent.

How can we help the current generation of children? How can I help my local school to do better? How can I help the young adults around me as they embark on the difficult task of creating a family and having children? How can we as their extended families help them to make the commitment to marriage and family life? How can I better support the people around me who are carrying the burden of childrearing, whether they are single parents, married parents, grandparents, or other family members? This crisis is old and on-going, and can only be resolved with a concerted conscious effort. If we fail our society will continue to be plagued with violence and abuse.

Frances Correia is a married mother with three children in primary school. She juggles family life with full-time work at the Centre for Ignatian Spirituality of the Jesuit Institute in South Africa.