The all-male group tackling toxic masculinity
On a warm Saturday afternoon, more than a dozen young men and teenage boys sit on plastic chairs in a yard in their neighborhood.
They gather to talk about women, respect — and sex.
It’s a meeting that occurs twice a week in Pankop, a small town in Mpumalanga province, in eastern South Africa.
Some of these young men are virgins, and the group’s head, Kabelo Chabalala, is at pains to emphasize that it is OK to be one.
“There’s a lot of toxic masculinity,” Chabalala, 27, told CNN of the stereotypes portrayed around masculine gender roles in his country.
He believes that some of this is down to many young men in South Africa growing up without good role models.
“I realized that growing up without a father figure in my life could have influenced me to make some bad decisions,” Chabalala said. Many of these young boys “don’t have fathers that are present.”
“We see quite a lot of femicide [killing of a woman or girl] in South Africa,” he explained. The global rate of femicide for 2015 was 2.4 per 100,000 women. In comparison, South Africa’s rate for the same year was 9.6 per 100,000 women according to a 2018 report by Statistics South Africa.
“I thought that maybe if we work on how boys and men are socializing, we can have a different generation of men,” he added. “Instead of complaining, one could do something positive.”
In 2015, Chabalala launched the Young Men Movement, a nonprofit support group creating safe spaces for men to talk about their feelings.
Members participate in open discussions designed to restore “a safe environment for women,” he says. This involves having open debates around self-awareness, exploring how the men behave and how they carry themselves. They learn that “you are not less of a man if you say ‘I am sorry,'” said Chabalala.
“We play board games, Scrabble, chess. We also try to make it fun.”
These safe spaces have now been rolled out in schools and other community venues such as local churches and gardens in the town.
According to Chabalala, the Young Men Movement is a direct response to the crisis of masculinity today as societal norms, such as those around sexuality, demand conflicting behaviors from men.
“We expect girls to hold on to their virginity for quite some time and for boys to sow their seeds, forgetting that for them to actually lose their virginity, they are sleeping with another girl,” he said.
They are accused of not being manly enough because they are 16, 18 or 19 years old and haven’t had sex, Chabalala explains.
He says that teaching men to “respect women” is a crucial part of the group’s aim.
“It’s about working on the liberation of their thinking, them accepting certain concepts in a more progressive way,” he said, adding that most men can’t open up about these things with family or friends.
Alpheus Atjil, now a 19-year-old agricultural science student at the University of Pretoria, 50 miles away, has been coming to meetings in Pankop since they launched in 2015. He says he joined because most of his friends attended group meetings, but he has since found them invaluable.
“You cannot talk to your parents about such things,” said Atjil referring to relationships, and for whom the group is a brotherhood.
The group has helped facilitate those discussions among peers, he says. He’s moved to campus in Pretoria but still tries to attend meetings once a month.
‘What it is to be a man’
In research, hegemonic masculinity — toxic masculinity — concerns those things that describe what it is to be a man, often things that are bad, violent or aggressive, says Malose Langa, associate professor of psychology at the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg.
Men say that in order “to be celebrated, you need to be tough; you need to be emotionless.”
Going against this, “trying to be different,” is not an easy path, he said. “Such voices are not known, are not popular. They are not celebrated.”
But this culture can’t be easily corrected, Langa believes. “There needs to be space, but it depends who is facilitating those conversations and what are the messages.”
He says apartheid is partly to blame for the way young black men in South Africa have learned to socialize. “With our history, prior to 1994, you needed to know how to use a gun, and post-1994, many young men struggle to get out of those identities.”
Rape culture is ever-present in South Africa, with an estimated 138 of every 100,000 women in the country having been raped in 2016 and 2017, according to recent data from Statistics South Africa.
A 2016 study found that parental absence, bullying and harassment were associated with men who commit rape.
Atjil believes that many “boys and men who are the perpetrators didn’t have leaders and men to lead them on the right path.”
The Young Men Movement is trying to change this, by educating men against violence toward women.
Rebecca Helman, a researcher at the University of South Africa’s Institute for Social and Health Sciences and the South African Medical Research Council-UNISA’s Violence, Injury, and Peace Research Unit, says “women are from an early age swiftly molded into being nurturing and caring, but male children are not at all. And then it comes to the point where they become fathers, and we are surprised when they just opt out.”
Helman often conducts surveys with men about masculinity and says she knows too well the effects of toxic masculinity. She was raped three years ago and has used the experience to dedicate her time to changing attitudes.
“He was a young guy. He was high on drugs, and I don’t even know how old he was. He may have been 17 or 18. He said, ‘why are you crying?’ and I said, ‘do you think this is nice for me?'” she recalled.
“I don’t know if this was what triggered it, but he stopped with the rape, and you could see he was quite distressed with what he had done.”
She says she immediately went to the police and reported the rape, but her attacker was never caught. If he had been caught, she said, he would very likely “experience the same violence in prison.”
‘Calling out other young men’
Helman believes that community based groups like the Young Men Movement need to work together to create spaces of engagement.
“Young men really need to be calling out other young men,” she said. “But what happens once those men leave the safe space? Because a lot of the research shows that there is a high cost to being a different kind of man.”
Chabalala admits, “things are not going to change overnight,” and says the group is very slowly “reconstructing how men socialize” in their environment.
Each member takes turns to host meetings in their homes and some now have different group branches at soccer practice and in their church, he explained.
The Young Men Movement now runs projects across Pretoria about providing support networks and learning together, including a book club at which members meet twice a month and discuss books and insights gained from reading.
Today, the group discussions are extending beyond masculinity, to learning and skills development to also provide a future for these men.
“At my school, we used old-fashioned pen and paper,” Atjil said. “In our village, most people don’t experience a lot of things, simple things like computers. The group prepared me for that at university.”
Atjil who comes from a rural community in Pankop says the vital life skills he has learned from Young Men Movement has allowed him to adjust to city life in Pretoria, and in the future for work and relationships.