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South African Men in Covid-19

South African Men in Covid-19

Malose Langa and Bandile Bertrand Leopeng | Amandla 71/72 |September

The fear of being vulnerable and adjusting to a set of new social circumstances has placed many South African men in a unique position. In an effort to address the impact of Covid-19, men are developing a number of socially beneficial relations that are helping to change the conception of masculinity in 2020. It is essential that society begins to challenge its own stereotypes about men as part of promoting alternative and positive masculinities that are non-violent, non-sexist, non-homophobic and non-risk-taking. Covid-19 has ushered in a new era for men to open up about their challenges and find creative ways of dealing with socio-economic and mental challenges resulting out of this pandemic.

The unprecedented consequences of the coronavirus disease outbreak are being experienced by every country in the world. Beyond the immediate public health risks of Covid-19, many men, women, children and families find themselves in fast-evolving situations that have changed the daily practice of education and childcare. They have also raised awareness on methods of protection or treatment of all types of illnesses. Until recently, there have been restrictions on movement and the temporary closure of certain sectors of the economy in South Africa, which have resulted in immediate or impending losses of household income.

Some men have reported during phases of lockdown:

  • feelings of powerlessness, insecurity, and not being in control.
  • Being afraid of the virus itself.
  • Feeling crowded at home, or feeling isolated and having a hard time without social contacts and intimate relationships.
  • Worrying about health, family, or finances.

“Real” men

These circumstances certainly place more pressure on men, given the social and cultural construct that they need to be breadwinners of their households. The lockdown has already resulted in widespread job losses and many economies worldwide are soon likely to face recession. Due to the social construct that it is the sole responsibility of men to provide for their families, some men may feel a sense of loss or loss of manhood due to their inability to contribute financially at this time.

As a result of this, many men experience severe depression and anxiety attacks, but many are less likely to seek any professional help. In a 1976 book called The Forty-nine Percent Majority, Deborah David and Robert Brannon call this “no sissy stuff” – men are expected to avoid talking about their feelings and emotions. Obviously, this affects their mental health, as the only option left is to internalise all issues until they become too overwhelmed. When this happens, the release usually comes in the form of alcohol abuse, which then leads to other social problems such as anger outbursts or violent behaviour.

It is therefore important that we work with men in our communities during this time and beyond to assist them to resolve their emotional challenges. As part of this shift and transformation, we need to start admitting that men have unreasonable expectations placed upon them, many of which do not match their socio-economic realities.

When it comes to being able to cope with life challenges, men are supposed to be un-bothered, unemotional, and stoic. Men have generally been socialised to mask their fear and treat life-threatening situations with contempt and hostility. A study on Men and Covid-19 found that men “tend to downplay risk and are resistant to risk reduction policies”. This view may help to explain why some men have struggled to abide by lockdown regulations, which in some instances increased their risk of contracting the virus.

However, it is important that class and racial differences amongst men are acknowledged. This echoes the view of  Professor Robert Morrell, in his book Changing men in Southern Africa, that “there is no one, typical South African masculinity”. Instead, there are rather different masculinities to acknowledge the variety of interpretive forms that masculinity can take. Male experiences vary across socio–historical–cultural formations.

While statistics of domestic violence during lockdown dominated media headlines, it is equally important to report how some men took to the streets to raise awareness about the scourge of gender-based violence. For example, on 21st June 2020, Father’s Day in South Africa, actor Sello Maake Ka-Ncube led a group of hundreds of fathers and sons from the Act Now Movement in a march to the Union Buildings against the scourge of gender-based violence. The movement has called on men across the country to change their violent behaviour. Mr Ka-Ncube, the movement’s interim spokesperson, handed over a memorandum to the presidency to demand that actions are taken to end gender-based violence in South Africa.

Men and the alcohol ban

It is also important to comment about men and the banning of alcohol. While men are at increased risk for substance abuse, especially during social isolation, the ban on alcohol  has also afforded some men the opportunity to introspect and decide what type of fathers and husbands they want to be. Some men, recorded in an article written by Josh Levs,  shared stories of having to assist with house chores and taking care of their children, challenging traditional stereotypes of manhood and fatherhood that it is the sole role of women to care of children. However, with more men staying at home during lockdown, some men were taking on greater care-giving responsibilities such as assisting children with homework/online lessons, grocery shopping, playing games with their families and knowing more about their children’s social lives. All these interactions facilitated bonds between fathers, and children as well as their partners.   

It is important that these positive images of masculinities are publicly popularised in the media rather than always depicting men as violent and aggressive. Some men during this global pandemic displayed attitudes of care, love, and nurturance. This supports Lynne Segal’s argument, in her Slow motion: Changing Masculinities Changing Men, that crises can offer opportunities for heightened awareness around positive change and promote the importance of men’s voices.  The current situation has provided the opportunity amongst other men to disrupt gender stereotypes and change traditional masculine narratives that household chores and caring for children should be shared as part of advancing equality amongst men and women.

Professor Malose Langa is Associate Professor of Psychology at Wits University. Bandile Bertrand Leopeng is a Registered Counselling Psychologist, Boxer, Trainer and PhD candidate at Wits University.

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