Becoming Men: Black Masculinities in a South African Township, by Malose Langa – [Book Review]
Siyabulela Mama | Amandla 71/72 | September 2020
Reading Becoming Men: Black Masculinities in a South African Township has made me reflect on adolescent life as a person who grew up in a township. It made me reflect on how I engaged with girls, how I engaged in risky behaviour and how I had to navigate between being a serious boy, or what the book refer to as an “academic” boy, and being a cool kid.
The book has also made me go back and ponder on how I dealt with questions of homophobia and how I related to masculinities that are different to how boys are expected to behave. Through reading this book, these questions have provided me the with the opportunity to confront childhood issues that I never got the opportunity to deal with on this journey of life, as a boy who grew up in a working class township.
The book makes the point that it is important that we talk of masculinities in the plural, instead of masculinity in the singular, as we experience different masculinities. The book further uses the concept of hegemonic masculinities to describe how other masculinities use power to maintain control and domination over women, as well as over other subgroups of men, especially gay men, to constitute the ideal of a “real man”. It explores the dangers of pursuing this ideal of “real men”. It describes this concept of real men, partly, as the ability to support a wife and children through a steady income. And a real man has the ability to face and solve problems, and to demand sexual intercourse with multiple partners.
These masculinities are also pushed by the need to earn respect and must be submitted to in relationships. The danger, however, lies when men fail to live up to these ideals of real men. That creates negative ramifications for the men and they start feeling less of a man, or not real men. By the way, these situations could be avoided if men did not fall into the trap of hegemonic masculinities.
The book also introduces the important concept of the phallus in trying to explain the symbolised power and emptiness in masculinities, which results in problematic behavioural practices. It makes the point that men engage in risky behaviours such as smoking, having unprotected sex, dating more than one partner and engaging in gangsterism to prove that they are real boys.
Malose Langa, in trying to get the young boys he interviews in this book to take pictures of what they like and things they wished for in life, was surprised when they took pictures of big houses, fancy cars, fancy clothes and money. When he tried to understand why this was the case, the boys replied, “but these are the materials that make you earn respect and different women, and thus power in society.
This proves that the teachings of this capitalist society have influenced the shaping of masculinities of young adolescent boys.
The boys also reflected on their absent fathers and how this has impacted their lives and how many of their mistakes are, according to them, a result of their absent fathers failing to be there to show them the way. Many of the boys the book categorises as tsotsi boys blamed this – these are boys who bunked classes, disrespected teachers and engaged in dodgy behaviour at school. They blamed all their actions on the problem of their absent fathers and them not knowing their fathers. They believed those fathers would have guided them and advised them on a right path, and this was the case as well with sex jaros (boys who are popular with girls). However, it was also interesting to me how they did not recognise the presence of their stepfathers. I wondered how stepfathers reconcile themselves with such issues.
They raised the issue that knowing your biological father means knowing your true father and the clan that you originate from, and this was important in your journey in becoming a man and in shaping as a man. I guess this is why the book reflects that stepfathers were not deemed important.
The role of religion
The book reflects on religion as playing a huge and very important part in the shaping of men. It draws the case of sex jaros, and the zeal to date and sleep with more than one woman, and how boys able to do this were called izikhokho (legend). Those who could not do this, or were not keen to do it, were laughed at and made fun of. However, as a way to resist this, academic boys used their Christian ideals to resist the pressure that was created by this situation, and more importantly to resist peer pressure.
This question of Christianity provided for me as a reader a learning curve as I thought Christian people enjoyed being abazalwane (most dedicated Christians) and this made them feel recognised as Christians. But the book reveals that this was actually not the case at all, at least as far as the Christian boys who participated in the book were concerned. However, religion reflected a different image when it came to resolving issues of homophobia, as boys relied on religion to dismiss the notion of gays and how this breaks the cycle of the family. Therefore, religion was a tool used by participants to justify homophobia. And this was quite interesting – how religion can play different dialectical roles in the shaping of a man.
The book answers questions
The book answers the many questions that many of us have, about why men and especially young men, in their journey of becoming a man, always wish for boy children. The answer to this goes back to the question of absent fathers, and how young men want to be the father they could not have and relive their imaginations of the role they wished their fathers played in their lives, should they have been present. However, they stepped up to this role even if the child turned out to be a girl.
The book provides an important lesson in trying to understand masculinities. It first provides absent fathers with the picture of how their absenteeism affects the boy child. It also provides parents with tools in analysing and understanding the psyche of their boy child and thus makes it easier to respond. It makes it easier to analyse and to help mitigate or deal with the behaviour of men, and their engagement in violence against women, as the root cause of such behaviour is indirectly articulated in the book. It provides some serious policy alternatives for government in understanding the subject of masculinities and how to start dealing with its dangers.
And most importantly, the book provides a very important reflection for men, and some psychological help if you like, to revisit their defects and face issues in their life they did not have the opportunity to deal with psychologically, and which have in many ways influenced the way they reflected to the world. It is for exactly these reasons that I recommend Molase Langa’s book as a must read.
Siyabulela Mama is co-researcher at the Centre for Post-School Education and Training. And an activist at the Assembly of the Unemployed.