Compiled by Kotie Geldenhuys
Asanda Baninzi and Wox Mthuthuzeli Nombewu hijacked a sergeant based at the Langebaan Airforce Base and his girlfriend, then drove them to the Mawumawu area in Nyanga. Wox shot the man in his head as he lay face down on the road, while his terrified girlfriend was still sitting in the vehicle. They dumped his body before they took the woman to Zwelitsha, where both men raped her before they also shot her in the head. They dumped her body in the backyard of a Nyanga East house. Week after week, the Gugulethu community saw the burials of young people who had lost their lives in the mindless spiral of crime. The township was choking under this wave of murder, rape and execution-style killings and community meetings and memorial services became the norm. It seemed that as soon as one funeral was over, there was news of yet another murder.
Violence has become part of our daily lives and claims thousands of victims all over the world every year. People surely can't be born with violent tendencies, can they? And how do we make sense of what are seemingly senseless acts of aggression similar to what Vox and Asanda did? In this article we will try to find some answers as to why people turn to a life of violent crime.
There are many theories as to what makes a person violent. Some criminologists argue that one of the main reasons why people commit violent crime is because it is in their “nature” and that some people are psychologically predisposed to committing criminal acts. Seifert (2011) argues that there are numerous factors that determine behaviour and whether a person is at risk of developing violent tendencies. These factors include biological traits, family bonding, individual characteristics, intelligence and education, child development, peer relationships, cultural shaping and resilience. Gould (2016) agrees and notes that the combination of structural violence (for example, high levels of poverty and a lack of access to quality education) as well as exposure to physical violence, in the absence of warm, trusting relationships, is shown to cause complex trauma and lay the basis for violence. Substance abuse can also be added as a contributor to making some people more likely to commit crime (www.bbc.co.uk/education/guides/z8mpmnb/revision/3). Perpetrators of violence are seldom considered victims. However, constant and repeated trauma, as a result of being victims of violence, witnessing traumatic events and indeed perpetrating violence, has serious, long-term consequences for these victims, their families and society. For people affected by trauma the effects may include insomnia, fatigue and anxiety, but it may also exacerbate substance abuse and lead to aggression and violence (Gould, 2016). It is clear that the majority of criminals committing violent crime is “made” and not born. Their subsequent behaviour is the result of many aspects that went wrong somewhere in their lives. This article’s focus will fall on family, social and environmental factors influencing violent and aggressive behaviour as well as the mental side of such behaviour.
The link between poverty, poor family relationships and violent behaviour
Poverty and poor family relationships often go hand in hand and are two factors that can increase the risk of someone developing violent tendencies. However, one cannot generalise and believe that every child who experiences these problems while growing up will become an aggressive adult who commits violent crimes.
Criminal psychologists have found that many perpetrators have experienced deprivation in childhood (www.bbc.co.uk/education/guides/z8mpmnb/revision/3). Some children/young people who are living in extreme poverty will join gangs and adopt violence, not only to protect themselves from others, but also as a way to make a living amid scant economic opportunities. We cannot only blame poverty for influencing people to develop violent tendencies, because poorer countries than South Africa do not deal with the same levels of violence as we do.
Gould (2016) found that many perpetrators' families are often dysfunctional or broken and that throughout their lives, they continually encounter adults who reinforce their distrust of authority figures. Many studies have also highlighted that if a child is brought up in a family where there is "poor parenting", such as unsupervised children, parents not spending time with children, etc and/or where the parents have problems in their own lives due to alcohol dependency or a family break-up/divorce, then those children are far more likely to be involved in crime as they become older (www.bbc.co.uk/education/guides/ z8mpmnb/revision/3).
Kotsi is an example of a child who grew up in poverty and in a family structure that was disrupted. Gould (2016) tells the story of how Kotsi's father left his mother for another woman when he was only four years old. The father was not involved in the children's lives and only sporadically contributed to the family's expenses, resulting in them struggling financially. Kotsi lived with his mother, his siblings, his cousins and his grandmother. Kotsi completed his first three years of school at a Zulu-speaking school, but had to change schools because of the riots during the mid-1980s. He resumed school at a Sesotho-speaking school closer to home. Kotsi loved school and did well on an academic level, performed on the sports field and even sang in the choir. The turning point in Kotsi's life came when he did not have the R30 required to register for high school. He asked his father, who was a bus driver, for the money but his father never gave it to him. To Kotsi this was the second time his father betrayed him - the first time by leaving the family to start another while his first family suffered financially and the second time by preventing Kotsi from continuing his education. This R30 was very important to Kotsi. He left school and started hanging out with older boys and men who were also not in school, and started off his life of crime with petty crimes such as shoplifting. Soon Kotsi progressed to robbery, housebreaking and stealing cars. By the age of 17 he was convicted for his first offence which was a brutal gang rape. At 18, Kotsi stole his first firearm from a man walking home from a night vigil. The firearm opened new criminal opportunities for him and he was able to hijack trucks delivering goods to the shops in the township. He became more and more violent and is currently serving a 105 year sentence for truck hijacking, attempted murder, murder and theft of a firearm.
The stories of Kotsi, Peter and Zibonele (which are told later on in the article), confirm the importance of children growing up in stable and engaging environments.