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Violence in South Africa: key factors in the background of youth serious offenders

During the period 1993 to 1994, the first authors were in a research project involving a group of
violent young offenders who were imprisoned in England. The sample of the research compromised
approximately one-third of those in the custodial population, sentenced as juveniles for offences
which, if they were adults could have attracted a harsher sentence of fourteen years or more.
Another research was conducted in South Africa, which was focusing on the backgrounds of young
men who were serving sentences for the very similar types of offences on order to establish the
feasibility of a more substantive study, which would lead some insight into the background factors
which lead juveniles committing violent offences in South Africa and offer some recommendations
regarding handling and treatment (see Wedge, Boswell and Dissel 2000:16-22).

Using a structured questionnaire, similar to that which was used in England, interviewers were
caught with a total of 25 violent young offenders within two prisons. The procedure which was taken
for the research was the same as the one used in the English study, and similar theoretical
assumptions were made about the relevance of key background factors. One of the reasons of the
pilot study was to form an opinion of the applicability of the theoretical models developed in
England to the South African situation.

Findings of the South African study
Inmates were between the ages of 14 to 22, most of them in the ages of 16 to 20 years. The inmates
were convicted for theft/ attempted theft, assault, robbery, housebreaking, possession of unlicensed
firearm, kidnapping, rape, armed robbery and murder. There were 31 offences and some inmates
were found to have more than one offence. Sentences involved were from eight months (for theft)
to 47 years for multiple offences including murder. The average length of sentences was 7, 1 years
with a median of 5, 25 years. The details have suggested that as a group of violent offenders- these
inmates represented a wide range of ages, offences and sentences, with a distinct leaning towards
serious offences against the person ( e.g murder, rape, armed robbery, car hijacking, kidnapping).

Since it is expected the family backgrounds of 25 inmates varied considerably. These inmates where
asked who they lived with( at home)and seven young people responded that they lived with their
mother and father. And those having no father figure at all were mentioned by eight of the
interviewees. Other inmates had a number of situations, being raised by aunts, uncles, step-parents
or grandparents. Many of those interviewed were not living with their family home at the time of
conviction; many of them will have been living on the streets, or in some form of institution

The key factors in the backgrounds of youth serious offenders.
Abuse and loss
Amongst the sample of those who were interviewed, those who suffered emotional abuse were
36%, sexual abuse 4%, physical abuse 44%, apartheid/ political violence 25%, and those with
combinations of two or more were 20%. About 68% of the inmates had experienced some form of

The term loss is used as in the English research, to refer to the prevalence of bereavement or other
significant loss experiences. This notion of loss derives from Bowlbys work on maternal deprivation
(1951) and his own Rutters later adaptations of this thesis centring around attachment and loss
(Bowby 1969,1973,1980; Rutter 1972). The emergent theory Is that children who experience the
permanent or semi-permanent loss of a significant figure to whom they are emotionally attached
may suffer serious emotional disturbances as a result. Such disturbances is thought to be more likely
when, as in many of the present cases, the children have not been effectively helped to understand
and resolve their loss experiences. Even though the effects can be thought similar to those
emotional abuse, they cannot be placed in the same category since the infliction of loss is rarely on
act which is proactive towards the child. Therefore it is an experience which, similar to acts of abuse,
causes considerable childhood trauma which, depending on how it is is handled, may contribute to
later disturbed, aggressive, or violent behaviour(De Zulueta 1993).

The overall fugure of 84% was considerably higher than that of the 57% in the English study, and it
then appeared to show the consequences of violence, strife, and family disruption in and following
the apartheid era. As a result a lot of people lost their parents, family members, and friends through
the violence of shootings and killings. Another significant difference from the English study was that
several young men believed strongly that loved ones who had passed away had done so because of
witchcraft practices. Therefore it was very clear that, as researchers have suggested, these beliefs
were very clear and powerful (Minaar, Wentzel and Payzee 1997). Overall it seemed clear that this
group of 84% had been deeply distressed at the loses they had experienced.

It is common for children and young people to be reared by a relative other than the mother or
father,such as a grandparent, aunt, or uncle. Majority of black South Africans were confined to living
in defined homelands in mostly rural areas is due to the former policy of separate development.
Due to lack of work in rural areas parents are forced to move to urban areas to seek for jobs leaving
behind their children behind with their relatives.

Looking at the so called key factors mentioned, it is important to take note of the preamble or
explanation provided to each interviewee prior to its completion. It was explained to them that the
ideas of the research was to try and find ways to help children and young people to avoid
committing offences in the future. These reasons people have given in the past for committing

The question was that can they indicate how any of this applied to them, in other words, they were
invited to make a link between their offending behaviour and aspects of their childhood which they
considered relevant. Remarks about bereavement, loss, physical and other abuse were not,
however, confined to this area. While talking about their childhood and their criminal activities,
many of these young offenders talked about violence towards them, and other forms of abuse,as
well as family and other losses. In many instances, these experiences, though painful, were
accepted as something common in life, perhaps reflecting the socially and politically disruptive
experiences which these young people have been through in their early years.

Emotional abuse
In the South African research 36% of the sample described themselves as being neglected or ill-
treated by their parents, or others who were involved in providing care for them. In the English
research only 28, 5% described being neglected or ill-treated and this was lower compared to the
South African research and again may well reflect the greater societal stress experienced by families
in the South African study. Themba who was aged five when his father divorced his mother
explained how he was abused by his stepfather, physically, punishing him unfairly and unreasonably.
He also lived with his grandmother for some years and was much affected when his grandmother
passed away. He explained that he never felt that part of a caring family.

One other example was Pule. He explained that he never knew his father and had lived for some
time with his grandmother. His stepfather was murdered as a result of the tensions between Inkatha
and the ANC. His mother had six children all from different fathers and he felt that his mother
bought clothes etc. for her other children but not for him. He believed, until he was nine, that his
stepfather was his real biological father and was very much affected when he found out that it
wasnt so. He considers that he was treated less preferentially by his mother because of this.

Physical abuse
In the research 44% of the inmates in South Africa had experienced physical abuse. In the English
study it was only 40% who were physically abused. This probably reflected the fact that it is the
easiest category to recognise and the most socially acceptable form of abuse to admit to having
experienced. Another inmate Sipho for example, explained that he had stepfather problems. At the
age of four his father was removed from him and the began to meet sometimes. His stepfather
would beat him with a sjambok, havin first tied him to a post by his hands. He then decided to ran
away to live with his grandmother and went back and forth between his grandmothers home and
his mothers home ( where his stepfather continued living). At one point he was very angry with his
stepfather that he wanted to hurt him but couldnt because he was married to his mother.

Another inmate Moshe explained how he put everything he learnt in practise. At one stage he was
involved with the church and was thought about forgiveness. So if his step father told him stories he
would say to himself to forgive him. After a while he would begin to say things to him. His stepfather
was an electrician but would use his equipment to hit him sometimes electrifying him and beat him.
At times he would get swollen and couldnt go to school.

Apartheid/ political violence
Research findings in S.A show that 25% of those interviewed relate their activities to apartheid/
political violence. Others had experienced factors in their which seemed to the interviewers to
steam from apartheid, but this was not apparent to the respondents themselves, perhaps because
of their relative youth and lack of awareness of the historical and political context. Khetisi explained
that when he was ten his mother was killed by local people. This occurred because a person had
been shot in the street outside their home and his mother called the ambulance which in turn called
the police. The local people asked his mother why she had involved the police and the outcome was
killing her. he explained how angry he felt in his heart and for a long time was committed to
avenge her death. Now he says he wont do this as he has forgiven them.

Another inmate Jabu explained how he had a stable family upbringing but his problems stemmed
from living in a township and associating with criminal peers. All young men in his age held up cars-
usually with rich white people in them. he used to hate white people for what they had done to
blacks, but no longer, he said.

Sexual abuse
When comparing it with the English study, where sexual abuse was experienced by 29% of the
sample, there was little reported sexual abuse among this sample. Indeed only one young person
mentioned sexual abuse as relevant to his offending behaviour. However some South African
research would suggest that this phenomenon is no less prevalent than in England or other countries
( Bergh 1997). It is possible that more respondents in both countries would have reported the
experience had the matter been less sensitive and not generally shrouded in secrecy.

Death of someone important
In the interviewees almost everyone reported death of someone important in their lives. 84% of
these young people told of their fathers, mothers, grandparents (who cared for them in childhood)
and other close relatives whose death had a particular impact on their lives. Senzo had never lived
with his father who had taken another wife. He was brought up by his grandmother and when his
grandparents died he went to live with his aunt. However, he was still in touch with his mother but
she, in turn, was killed in a road accident when he was about 12 years old. By this age, then, he had
lost his grandparents who had brought him up, had never known his father, and also lost his mother.
Mavezis situation was a mirror image. He hadnt been in contact with his mother for many years
and was brought up by his grandmother. When he was about 14 years old he met his mother, but
when he was 15 his father was killed in a revenge attack. Mavezi described how this attacked him in
school and, that led him to taking drugs, which in turn resulted in violent crime in order to support
his drug habbit.

Looking at both studies of the English and South African study it becomes clear that almost all the
young offenders are led to jail by their previous disadvantages. How they grew up plays a huge role
in the person they become as they are older. So in other words tour upbringing determines the
person you will become in the future, but not everyone resorts to criminal activities, but most of
them do. Growing up in a more favourable society might decrease your chances of becoming a
criminal offender.

American Psychiatric Association 1987. Diagnostics and statistics Manual ( DSM-111-R), 3ed
(revised).Washington DC: American Psychiatric Association.
Bergh, L 1997. In search of the Typical Sex offender. Focus forum, 4(5) 22-24.
Boswell, GR 1996. Young and dangerous: the backgrounds and careers of Section 53 Offenders.
Aldersho: Avebury.
Bowby, J 1951, Child care and the Growth of Love. Harmondsworh; Penguin.
Bowly, J 1969,1993, 1080. Attachment and loss. (vol 1, 2 &3). London: Hogarth Press.
Wedge, P Boswell G & Dissel, A 200. Background to a replicable study of violent offenders in South
Africa. Acta Criminalogica, 13 (1): 16-22.

Name: Machawe Thwala
Student Number: 214583331
Topic: Discuss in detail the factors that contribute
to young offendings