Global Cooperation

How can South Africa break the cycle of violence?

Chandré Gould
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Sustained high levels of violence and crime fundamentally threaten South Africa’s development; not least because of the adverse effects on realising human potential. Both the National Development Plan (NDP) and the Integrated Urban Development Framework (IUDF), which the Department of Cooperative Governance and Traditional Affairs released for comment last year, recognise that safety is fundamental to development.

However, the IUDF, much like the NDP, is so vague about what must be done to prevent violence in the medium to long term that it risks being inactionable. Both the NDP and the IUDF recognise the importance of investing in social protection, health care and education to realise human potential, which is needed for more South Africans to have access to jobs and live healthier, happier lives.

But it does not necessarily follow that improving access to job markets and services will increase safety. The experience of Latin America shows that job creation, particularly for young people, does not necessarily lead to social inclusion and social cohesion or an increase in safety. One reason for this is that for many young people who bear the burden of inter-generational deprivation and disadvantage, education followed by entry to the job market is not an obvious trajectory.

Our challenge as a country is to reduce entrenched inequality and violence, and improve safety. We can do these simultaneously, but it requires a radical shift of attention and investment into the very early years of children’s lives.

A significant number of children in low- and middle-income countries do not achieve their developmental potential because of the effects of poverty. Poverty can negatively affect physical growth (if coupled with inadequate nutrition), cognitive development, and social and emotional competence. Cognitive and socio-emotional development, and the ability to regulate our emotions, is critical to our ability to interact successfully with others. This, in turn, is critical to educational achievement. It is also necessary to succeed in the job market.

Nobel laureate and economist, James Heckman, has made a strong case for investing in children’s lives. He has shown that interventions which support the cognitive and socio-emotional development of disadvantaged children up to three years of age yields a significantly higher return in terms of human capital than investments at later stages, such as youth employment strategies.

The evidence shows that if we seek to increase human capital – which should not be our only goal, but which is necessary for realising the development goals of the NDP and the IUDF – our investments need to be made in infants and children, followed by skill building.

Ensuring that babies and infants get the right kind of care, nutrition and stimulation in the first 1 000 days of their lives is the best chance we have at breaking cycles of poverty and violence, increasing the number of people who complete school, reducing inequality and building a healthy future.

Between conception and two years of age, a baby’s brain grows to 80% of its adult weight. Also in this time, connections in the brain are created at a rate of a million per second; faster than at any other stage in our lives. The ability to regulate emotions is also learnt in these first few months.

If things go wrong in the first few years it can set a child back permanently. Abused or neglected children who don’t have a healthy bond with a caring adult are at risk of not coping at school and becoming the victim or perpetrator of violence. They are also likely to struggle later in life; as are babies who are exposed to ‘toxic stress’ – which includes exposure to alcohol and other drugs in the womb, violence in the home; or when a caregiver is depressed or mentally ill.

Children who are neglected, abused, or who are not cognitively stimulated in their infancy, are likely to repeat the cycle of deprivation and disadvantage. This is exacerbated by exposure to violence in the home, stressed parents, harsh corporal punishment at school and at home and bullying at school. The result is a toxic mix that massively reduces human potential and lays the basis for continuing cycles of violence.

The good news is that several programmes have been developed and tested in South Africa to address exactly this. These include the Thula Sana home visiting programme, which helps mothers to form healthy, warm bonds with their infants; a book-sharing programme to increase infants’ attention, focus and vocabulary; programmes that help parents to use positive discipline; in-school programmes that reduce sexual offending; and skill-building programmes that reduce risky behaviour in teens – including substance abuse.

Rolling out these programmes would not only prevent violence in the long term, but will also likely have a positive effect on productivity. To achieve the development outcomes envisaged by the NDP and IUDF, we therefore need to focus our investments on ensuring that babies can grow up to be healthy, motivated adults. If, on the other hand, we focus only on infrastructure and situational crime prevention, without paying attention to the people who will use it, we risk swimming against the tide of violence in perpetuity.

To make this shift, we need to ensure that budgets at national and provincial level are allocated for primary prevention programmes. Second, key performance indicators have to motivate and enable referral by primary health care providers to programmes. Further, local and provincial government need to be informed about and understand the value and importance of primary prevention, and safety plans must be developed to include primary prevention.

Safety plans need to recognise the reality that, as data from the National Income Dynamics Surveys show, most children (57%) in South Africa do not live with their fathers, and only 40% of fathers contribute towards their upbringing. Thus, when we think about transport routes, the location of health and educational services, early-childhood development centres and after-school care, and the opening hours of service providers, we need to consider the needs of single, working parents. We also need to ask whether community-policing forums are the right forums for discussing primary interventions to decrease violence, as knowledge of such programmes is unlikely to be found here.

This article is published in collaboration with ISS. Publication does not imply endorsement of views by the World Economic Forum.

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Author: Chandré Gould is a Senior Research Fellow for the Governance, Crime and Justice Division at ISS Pretoria.

Image: A woman, who asked to remain anonymous, recounts her experience at a shelter for domestic violence victims. REUTERS/Jorge Silva.

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