The Intractability of Militarised Masculinity: A Case Study of Former Self-Defence Unit Members in the Kathorus Area, South Africa


Langa, Malose, and Gillian Eagle. 2008. “The Intractability of Militarised Masculinity: A Case Study of Former Self-Defence Unit Members in the Kathorus Area, South Africa.” South African Journal of Psychology 38 (1): 152–75.

Authors: Malose Langa, Gillian Eagle


The study explores the struggle to maintain and transform a 'masculine' identity acquired primarily as a consequence of serving as part of a township-based paramilitary force in the pre-democratic South Africa. Based on accounts of former Self-Defence Unit (SDU) members from the Kathorus region (a group of townships on the perimeter of Johannesburg), the article explores some of the forces that influenced young men to become involved in political violence, the status this bestowed upon them, and how aspects of their 'militarised identity have come into conflict with new constructs of masculinity in a post-apartheid South Africa'. Although the experiences of South African ex-combatants have been documented in a number of reports and articles (Gear, 2002; Marks, 2001; Mashike & Mokalobe, 2003; Xaba, 2001), this article seeks to highlight the intractability of a particular form of masculine identity attained during the pivotal stage of early and late adolescent development. The negative consequences of this weddedness to a militarised masculinity for both the men themselves and the broader society are explored, together with some of the dimensions that appear to make this identity so compelling and so difficult to transform. The article draws upon theoretical understandings that suggest that gender and masculinity are socially constructed, and is based on data collected by means of individual interviews and focus groups conducted, with former combatants. The interviews reveal that images of militarised masculinity were popularised and dominant during the liberation struggle against apartheid, particularly amongst urban youth who were recruited into resistance activities. Young combatants were expected to be strong, brave, tough, fearless, aggressive, and violent. In many urban townships, young boys who were not part of the liberation struggle and youth politics were constructed as lacking in masculinity. Post 1994, virtually overnight, young combatants were expected to relinquish their militarised roles and to adopt new forms of masculinity without the facilitation of any demilitarisation programme to address the complexities of this transformation in their social and personal identity. The interviews reveal that many of these former combatants feel betrayed, forgotten, and alienated in post-apartheid South Africa. Some have carried their militarised masculinities into the new democracy, continuing to be involved in violent activities and risk-taking behaviours. Although many of them appear to be suffering from symptoms of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) and other aspects of war trauma, attending counselling is seen as a sign of weakness and as an insult to militarised masculinity. The article argues that interventions to assist with identity transformation and greater social integration of such marginalised young men need to take account of these dynamics.

Topics: Age, Youth, Combatants, Gender, Men, Boys, Masculinity/ies, Health, PTSD, Trauma, Military Forces & Armed Groups, Militarization, Post-Conflict Regions: Africa, Southern Africa Countries: South Africa

Year: 2008

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