My deep love for South Africa fills me with purpose and compels me to shine a light on the darkest parts of our society. I am a product of South Africa’s all-boy school system, often lauded for producing excellent education. My schooling should have, but fell short of, preparing me to fully embody values of compassion, equity, and justice. I have spent much of my adult life learning, relearning, and unlearning sexist behaviors gleaned from systemic patriarchy embedded in the school.
During my student tenure in a semi-private all-boy high school in Johannesburg, a handful of teachers and students pushed back against sexism, and many educated us about the dangers of unchecked masculinity. However, when we boys grouped together, we bonded through displays of sexual dominance and expressed attitudes similar to the men in the above conversation. The physical school space itself did not foster patriarchy, although certain spaces such as locker rooms and hostels certainly did, but rather our acceptance of patriarchal actions strengthened its existence. All-boy schools are capable of, and do, nurture oppressive culture.
South Africa is the most unsafe place for womxn on earth. Every 3 minutes, men rape a womxn or a mxn, and every three hours, a husband or boyfriend murders a womxn. August 2019, which happens to be Women’s Month, was one of the deadliest months for womxn in South Africa. In thirty days, men murdered 30 womxn who were their partners. On August 24, 2019, a man murdered Uyinene “Nene” Mrwetyana, a 19 year old media student at the University of Cape Town. Nene went to the post office to pick up a package. The attendant told her the machine wasn’t working and asked her to return a few hours later. When she returned, he lured her into a back room, raped and tortured her, before killing her with a scale. He then dumped her body in a nearby garbage dump.
Womxn, and some men, across the world coalesced in outrage. Social media was abound with #MenAreTrash, #IamNext, #MeToo highlighting the extent of sexual violence in South Africa. The rapists’ house was set ablaze by angry community members. Despite the overwhelming evidence, many men, and some womxn responded with denial, diminishment, and deflection to the presence of injustice. #WomenAreTrash, #NotAllMen soon trended, as men told womxn on social media: “she deserved it”, “what was she thinking going there alone?”, and “shut your mouth, or you will be next.”
I strongly aligned with the #MenAreTrash movement as I worked through what I read, what I watched, and what I experienced during this month. But, as a racialized white middle class cisgendered man who grew up in Johannesburg, I also saw a version of myself in the misogynists’ posts. When I peeled back the layers of association between who I am now compared to those times when I’ve embodied misogyny, I immediately reflected on my high school experience. During that period between 2003-2006, I subconsciously internalized the notion that my penis gave me status, power, and control over others.
How does rape culture explain parts of my schooling experience?
As I read through my high school journal, there is a particular poem, written when I was fifteen years old, which describes sexually assaulting a womxn. Reading it now evokes immense shock, shame, and disgust that I was thinking these thoughts as a teenage boy. As jarring as it is to read now, it was not an isolated text. My journal contained multiple accounts of older boys air humping me from behind, having pubic hair ripped from my scrotum while being held down, and assemblies when matrics would tell stories of their sexual escapades for all of us to laugh and cheer. I did not realize it then, but I know now, that I was deep in the bowels of South Africa’s patriarchal rape culture.
In all-boys schools, we are taught how to reproduce the injustices of patriarchy. How we raise our boys determines the men we produce. Men determine the levels of social, economic, and physical violence in a society. We are more likely to leave our girl child with a womxn we don’t know rather than a male stranger because of the permeance of male violence. The levels of socialized sexism in all-boy spaces prepares us for inhumanity against womxn. It arms us to reproduce and strengthen the oppressive culture against womxn.
All-boy schools are a relatively small but significant stakeholder in South Africa’s educational landscape. Their prominence is layered by the high concentration of men they educate, their middle-upper class nature, and their often colonial and apartheid roots. Originally, these institutions educated white boys to take their place in the British colonial administration, and then the apartheid system of white patriarchal supremacy. In contemporary South Africa, the sediments of racial, class-based, and gender based hierarchies in these schools still operate largely unchanged. Boys, regardless of race and class who matriculate from these schools can often become men who embody the colonial and apartheid value system. In school I learned how to solve for x, but also, how to be white, how to operate in a capitalist economy, and importantly, how to perpetuate the system of sexism.
Education and schooling are not benign processes. Schools are a vision for society because they reflect our greatest hopes, and our most cherished values. Our schools expose us. They reveal who we think we are versus what we actually are and provide us with an opportunity for transformation. What is learned in school, both overtly through subject knowledge, and covertly through cultural behavior, can prepare us to challenge our position in the world: “…It is through education that the daughter of a peasant can become a doctor, and the son of a mineworker can become the head of the mine…” But, because education, especially schooling, exists in an inherently unjust context, it can also teach us to be instruments that reproduce injustice.
My schooling experience taught me to associate manhood with the false notion of sexual power. Sexual violence against womxn was not only encouraged, but expected. Teachers, parents, and adults in authority normalized this way of being through their implicit silence. I constantly heard and participated in sexist jokes, trivializing sexual assault (“boys will be boys!”), and discussions about why womxn should avoid getting raped instead of teaching men not to rape. The fifteen year old boy who wrote the poem about assaulting a womxn grew into a man. Years after I matriculated, I bonded with my male friends over the extent of our physical dominance over womxn. Life after school was a continuation of school.
I would be potentially dangerous to womxn were it not for trying to be a different man. My adulthood is defined by learning new ways of bonding with other men and womxn, relearning the value of feminine power and strength as nurtured into me by womxn in my life, and unlearning violent patriarchal behavior. Even though I grew up in a mixed race family in South Africa, I lacked comprehension of how racism operates until I studied under the leadership of an African American professor at a US-based university. In this context I confronted how I perpetuate oppressive ways of being and doing. Despite my growing awareness of race and class based oppression, I did not fully grasp the operation of gender. But, after contact with Kimberlė Crenshaw’s intersectional framework and my marriage to a feminist, I became conscious of how my adulthood is shaped by systems of patriarchy, racism, and class based exploitation learned in school. Despite my deep commitment to live through justice and equity I often fall short of these ideals. Regardless, I do my best everyday to listen, build relationships, reflect, learn and take action; understanding that I am always a work in progress.
What can we men do about it?
Men, we have a responsibility to combat internal and external patriarchy. As individuals, we can learn to listen and listen to learn. Do a personal and honest inventory of your behavior towards womxn. Ask yourself whether you make sexist jokes or use language that degrades womxn and sexual identities. How do you reinforce or challenge strict gender stereotypes among your children when you select their toys, delegate their tasks, or set their expectations? Do you raise your sons to respect the personal space of womxn? Do you place the blame on womxn when they are a victim of sexual violence, or respond to womxn’s experiences of patriarchy by denying its existence (“that rape is an isolated incident”), deflecting to something else (“we should be talking about this other issue”), or diminishing it (“her experience was worse, so stop complaining”)? If you are in a sexual relationship, do you always assume consent? What are your biases against womxn?
In groups, refraining from bonding through the dehumanization of womxn is a start, but is insufficient. It is our responsibility as men to use our power and privilege to confront patriarchy at a systemic and interpersonal level. We can challenge sexist attitudes and rape culture among our peers, and model for others that these ways of being are socially unacceptable. We can teach our boys healthy ways to bond and define manhood as inclusive of womxnhood. To the men who value womxn, we need to mentor other men and boys to support their healthy development.
As schools, let us commit to shaping boys into full, healthy and compassionate human beings. We can do this through evaluating our language, institutions, policies, and symbols. The following questions may be useful:
- Do we normalize racist and sexist language, including jokes?
- What are our mokitas, those undercurrents that we don’t talk about, but know exist?
- Do we, even tacitly, foster toxic masculinity in spaces such as hostels or groups such as prefects or matrics?
- When we scrutinize our policies, especially our curriculum, do we equip our students to critically evaluate their learning through the lens of intersectional justice?
- Do we challenge racial and gender based symbols such as stereotypes?
Left unchecked, all-boy school spaces will continue to produce men who equate themselves with violence against womxn. Rape culture is pervasive in families, schools, and society at large. By challenging the roots of this culture in all-boy schools, which educates thousands of men every year, we will make South Africa, and the world a safer and more equitable place for womxn everywhere.