Every young man undergoing the African circumcision ritual as part of the journey into manhood shouts triumphantly as he steps onto the threshold: Ndiyindoda! This triumphant shout is also an appeal for affirmation from those witnessing the moment to say: Yes, You are a man! Today we are here to discuss how we affirm the manhood of young men in our lives, our communities and our society. How do we make every one of them feel secure that they are indeed men equal to the task of contributing to our society?
At the heart of this discussion is how we define a man in our society today. What do we regard as a successful man? What attributes do we value in a successful man? How are traditional and other coming-of-age rituals responding to the demands of our times in preparing young men to live up to the expectations of their families, friends and communities in the 21st century? How are we as a society meeting the challenge of enabling, supporting and accompanying young men on their journey to manhood?
There is wide divergence between the values of a non-racial, non-sexist and social justice culture on one hand and those of the traditional culture in a male-dominated society. The brutal violence against women and children, as well as against young men by other young men, is a symptom of failure to align our social relationships with the human rights values of our democracy. Violence is the language of dominance. A social justice value system promotes the resolution of interpersonal and other community conflicts through discussion, without the need to resort to violence.
The demands of masculinity framed by an alpha male narrative celebrate dominance. The elements constituting this dominant masculinity are anchored in power and control. Real men have money and control over its use, they occupy leadership positions in public life, flaunt their sexual prowess, are hardy and boast intellectual superiority. This dominant masculinity model operates on a competitive and winner-takes-all approach to power that undermines those men defined as losers. The alpha male dominance is sustained by undermining other males.
In this paper I would like to suggest that the dominant masculinity narrative reflects the unfinished business of structural socioeconomic and psychosocial transformation in our society. I would like us to address three questions:
– How do we have conversations about the re-alignment of the values of masculinity or masculinities with those of our human rights? Constitution in our male-dominated society?
– How do we support young men in the struggles they have to contend with in defining themselves outside this dominant masculinity model?
– What healing pathways are available or can be made available to support young men to become builders of a nation governed by human rights values?
Conversations About Masculinity
We have underestimated the psychosocial transformational work that needs to occur to enable our society to embrace the ideals of non-racialism, non-sexism and egalitarianism demanded by our Constitution. We seem to have assumed that the mere adoption of our Constitution would set us off toward the ideal values-based society we signed up for. We have not invested any significant resources to enable citizens to interrogate, understand and translate the value system of a human rights culture into practices that shape our social relationships. This is a surprising omission, given the contrast between the value system of the male-dominated racist system and that of the social justice regime we committed ourselves to.
Progressive societies across the globe invest in civic education from pre-school to tertiary education level to ensure that their citizens develop an understanding and pride in the values that frame their societies. Civic education is also embedded in adult- level engagements at work, in civil society organizations including faith-based forums, to promote shared values and adherence to the rule of law. Immigrants are also required to familiarize themselves with the values and ethos of the society they are entering to promote harmony.
Our laissez-faire approach to mainstreaming human rights values into our social relationships at home, at school, at work and in the general community has not worked.
We are short-changing our children and young people by not incorporating civic education in our educational curricula at all levels of the system. We are also failing to create opportunities for teachers and learners to use the classroom space for conversations about identity formation and the values that should underpin social relationships in our democracy.
Identity formation for men and women is complicated by our painful past. The wounds of humiliation under a racist and sexist system that many people still carry make them submissive to the dominant narrative. Our discriminatory, unjust socioeconomic and
political legacy has framed the alpha male as a white man. Twenty years of democracy has not changed this masculinity narrative. The socioeconomic conditions have not been transformed enough for the majority population of males to confidently choose to frame themselves by alternative masculinities.
But what are the alternative masculinities that young men can model themselves on? Gender equality is at the heart of our constitutional democratic values, yet our society continues to privilege and celebrate the alpha male dominant masculinity model. The dissonance between the gender equality value system and that of the alpha male can only produce conflict and violence. The dominant masculinity operates through subjugation of others to the power and control of the dominant male. Women and children become collateral damage when men defined as losers in this model take out their frustration on those closest to them. Those dominated and abused become dominant abusers as well.
Think of young men who opt to model themselves into gentle, communicative empathetic caring people who show their emotions, enjoy teamwork, collaboration and partnerships,
rather than the prevailing competitive engagements. Would we encourage them and hold them up as positive role models? Or would we join those calling them wimps, morphies and sissies? How do we respond when they are ridiculed? Do we challenge those ridiculing them or do we join the fray?
Why are we so tolerant of displays of masculinity that celebrate ostentatious consumption, risky behaviors such as drag racing, binge drinking, sex parties? The mushrooming of “Adult Shops” is a reflection of the narcissistic focus that drives men and women to seek instantaneous satisfaction in sexual fantasies. So-called sex workers are also a product of an alpha male narrative that celebrates men’s insatiable sexual urges that require service providers to indulge them. So, too, the growing human trafficking of young women and children. How do we reconcile respect for human rights with the sale of human bodies to satisfy the urges of the men with money and power?
Even more complex are the masculinities of transgender or gay men. How comfortable are we with affirming the manhood of those whose sexual preferences and expressions of their gendered bodies challenge the traditional view of what a man is or is not? Are we able to affirm them as real men who deserve the same respect as all others? Are we willing to socialize our children to acknowledge the diversity of masculinities as equally valid in our society? Are our institutions of learning creating enough safe spaces for conversations about gender diversities to be held? What provisions are we making for the expression of alternative masculinities in the arts, sports and other aspects of our social institutions?
Women as mothers, aunts, grandmothers, wives, sisters and community members also have to confront their own fears, hopes and prejudices about challenging the traditional
dominant male model. To what extent are we as women open to nurturing and affirming our sons and grandchildren who may display a non-traditional masculinity profile? Are we willing to encourage them and advocate openly for their rights?
Women leaders have to step forward and set the tone of conversations about gender equality and non-dominant male identity formation. We need to have open conversations
about the incompatibility of the dominant masculinity model with the social justice values of our Constitution. A non-racial, non-sexist, egalitarian value system cannot be embedded in
an environment framed by a dominant masculinity characterized by command and control.
Young Men’s Development Challenges
Young men in our society wrestle with the contradictory demands of a human rights value system that promotes gender equality on one hand, and a socialization process that promotes the alpha male model on the other. The human rights values reside in the realm of the ideal, whilst the daily reality is framed by practical manifestations of the dominant male model. The ideal is seen as a nice to have, but the practical male dominant model is
enforced by the everyday demands at home, at school, at work, in the community and the wider society.
Traditional rituals of transition to manhood tend to reinforce the dominant male model. The definition of manhood is predicated on the culturally promoted heterosexual male icon. The initiation rituals have as desired outcomes men who will fit into the operating model of what a real man should be like: physical and mental toughness, no expression of emotion even under excruciating physical pain, and knowledge of the ethos of traditional manhood. Even those cultures that do not follow the formal traditional ritual, the central message is that being male is a privileged position that entitles them to leadership, power
Men who are unable to live up to the alpha male narrative suffer from an inferiority complex. Those men who do not meet the criteria of the alpha male, are often treated with disrespect by others who see them as failures. The sense of worthlessness drives many men caught up in this undermining system to aggression and substance abuse. The vicious cycle of low self-esteem, feeling disrespected and inability to communicate inner fears and hopes, drives the epidemic of domestic violence and general violence against women and children.
Young men growing up in such circumstances have an even tougher challenge in developing a positive self-image, identifying their strengths and weaknesses, setting and meeting goals to reach their potential. Growing up in homes without biological fathers, nor father figures also leaves young men struggling with identity formation. Poverty, unemployment and inequality undermine identity formation for young men in our society with a dominant masculinity ethos regardless of the presence of biological or other father figures. Not only do they struggle to attain the status of the alpha male, but their fathers or father figures are
likely to also suffer from the sense of inadequacy due to the lack of money, power and influence.
The vicious cycle of the triple burden if not broken early through education/skills development and employment placement, can become a multi-generational handicap. This is particularly the case in many households in which children grow up without any income-earning adult. Young men in such households often feel like failures with the double burden of being sons of failed fathers. We need to find a way of breaking this vicious cycle.
What Healing Pathways for a Transformative Masculinity?
We need to enable honest, open and sustained conversations to connect us with our inner fears, pains, yearnings and hopes. Self-knowledge and awareness of our strengths and weaknesses would enable us to better manage our lives as individuals and society. We need to ask ourselves if our homes, schools, work places, community spaces are creating safe spaces for healing conversations? Are we as parents: mothers, fathers, grandparents, aunts and uncles conscious enough about how our own self-understandings shape those of our children and those with whom we relate?
The work of social transformation is not only about promoting inclusive socio-economic development, but also about institutionalizing a value system reflecting our human rights
commitments. We need to transform the structures of our cities and towns into inclusive empowering living spaces so young men and women can grow into self-confident citizens.
Residential, public services, workspaces and commercial/industrial facilities must be integrated to create more vibrant and economically sustainable communities. Such holistic living spaces would promote engagements between men and women from across a diversity of cultural backgrounds to ensure that we can shape a more inclusive masculinity frame beyond the current dominant model.
We are putting too heavy a burden on men. The idealized alpha male masculinity model is a recipe for competition and violence. Domination undermines both the dominated and the dominator. The dominated is humiliated, whilst the dominator lives with the fear of losing the grip on the power to dominate. Social relationships driven by domination of some by others generate conflict and negative energy. Creativity, innovation and free flow of ideas
are undermined by the politics of domination. Young men and women need to be liberated from the conflict-ridden dominant masculinity to enable them to express themselves as free people.
The new man and woman in the 21st century needs to have the freedom to shape their own self-image in line with their inner spirits in tune with the value system of human rights precepts of our Constitution. An increasing number of studies conclude that leadership qualities needed for success in the complex 21st-century global community are those traditionally associated with “the feminine” in the human species recognized that it is unwise to assume that there are rigidly distinctive attributes of men and women that shape leadership styles. Emerging insights and understanding suggest that what was traditionally defined as feminine attributes are reflections of greater emotional intelligence.
Successful men and women leaders and managers of large complex corporations exemplify values that have come to be called Athena Principles:
– Live authentically
– Learn constantly
– Advocate fiercely
– Act courageously
– Foster collaboration
– Build relationships
– Give back
An environment that promotes these values is much more likely to unleash the talents and creative energies of all those involved. Ashley Montague argues that women understood early on in the human evolutionary journey that they could not compete on brute force.
They instead evolved smarter ways of getting things done in collaboration with, rather than in competition with others. Both men and women can enhance their performance as leaders by adopting these principles.
Columba Youth Leadership Program draws on a similar set of core values to transform underperforming schools into positive learning and teaching environments with spillover effects on the communities served by such schools. The Columba model focuses on:
Awareness, Focus, Creativity, Integrity, Perseverance and Service. The transformation process involves commitment by the Principal, School Governing Body and 12 Grade 10 pupils selected through a competitive process based on essays and interviews. Not only the brightest, but the naughtiest are included as well.
Columba’s values-driven approach enables everyone involved to go on a journey of personal knowledge and active engagement with each of the core values, so that they become part of the practice of being with the self, at home, at work, at school, in the community and in the wider society. The small group of selected pupils together with the Principal and another member of staff become the leaders of a transformation process. They lead by example and support one another and encourage the rest of the school community to adopt and live the same values. The impact of the program is spectacular as measured by improvements in the institutional cultures of the schools, academic performance, engagement in community service programs by students, etc. The program has been running since 2009 and is currently in 80 schools in six provinces.
Imagine if we could have every school in our failing education system becoming part of this values-based personal development process to ensure that individuality is celebrated within the connectedness of Ubuntu. Imagine how we could transform our male-dominated violent culture into one in which citizens are more aware of themselves and their environment and more caring about the welfare of others. Imagine how much more creative and focused young people would be, and how that would impact on the
performance of our education and training system. Imagine how that would enhance our performance as a society that is creative, identifies and celebrates talent, and perseveres in pursuing its goals of being a prosperous democracy.
We have all the resources, the tools and the creative people in our midst to transform our society into one that lives its values of non-racialism, non-sexism and social justice for all.
We also have the pressure of rampant violence against women and children that is undermining our claim to being a society that respects human rights.
We owe it to young men, who die unnecessary violent deaths on our roads, in schools and on the streets in communities terrorized by gangs, to transform our society. We have to relentlessly challenge the dominant masculinity model in our homes, communities, schools and wider society. We must commit to promoting environments that celebrate a caring set of masculinities.
The core values of our Constitution are the guide we should start living by. We can then boldly affirm our sons and grandsons when they assert: Ndiyindoda!! Our Yes You Are would sound more authentic. Our children deserve nothing less. We can do it.