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It is highly unfashionable to speak up on behalf of men and boys. Anyone who is interested in South Africa’s social problems need not look too far to find a man at the heart of them, in everything from how badly we run our government to the appalling treatment of women and children in this country because of patriarchal attitudes. It’s easy to fall into the trap of thinking that such issues are more likely to be found in poorer households and less-educated communities, but that would be wrong.

Just the other day, at the Judicial Service Commission, female candidates for the bench were asked whether they might be too “abrasive” and whether they would struggle to balance the needs of family and the challenges of being a judge. Nobody asked me that when I interviewed for this job. It is, therefore, with some trepidation that one puts a toe into the water and asks a difficult question. If South African men are failing us, what should we do about it beyond whining about it on Twitter? What are the solutions?

The idea of defining what it means to be a man is old hat. All the old ideas of masculinity are either taboo in liberal circles or just seem absurdly out of date. In my household, it’s not me who earns the big bucks — and I’m the one with tennis elbow from heaving a toddler around the place; an ailment the internet informs me is a classic “mom injury”. Conceptually, I’m happy with that (not so much the sore elbow, though). But if men are at the heart of so many of our most pressing social problems, then surely there must be some sense in putting the focus there.

Recent literacy research in South Africa has been so appalling on an international benchmarking standard (we are stone-cold last by some metrics, and 81% of Grade 4s can’t read for meaning) that the gender disparity may have been lost in the shock. We have the worst gender imbalance in literacy of all 57 countries surveyed, with boys lagging behind girls by a full 18 months. Girls outperform boys in all countries, but the gap is usually small. Ours is shocking. Kids who cannot read for meaning by the end of the foundation phase are much more vulnerable to dropping out before matriculating, as being unable to read makes the increasingly complex syllabus simply impossible to learn.

That this disproportionately affects boys is very bad news, because youth unemployment sits at around 60% in this country and, if one adds the gendered reading statistics and overlays wealth, racial, and urban/rural dynamics, the outlook for poorer black boys in rural and township areas can only be appalling.

Addressing the education crisis and freeing the economy from mismanagement are easy words to write, but probably not so easy to execute. These are, however, likely to be the biggest single actions the state can take to fix the crisis of masculinity in South Africa. Educated and economically active men would in theory be free to be the best they could be, if you’ll excuse a soppy banality.

It is not, however, a silver bullet. South African cultures in all their gloriously diverse hues and flavours nonetheless have several homogenous characteristics — a leading one being certain expectations and characteristics assigned to what it is to be a man. The most pernicious may be that it is men’s role to provide financially for families when, as the statistics show, they are not enabled to do so. The impact on a person’s sense of value and worth of failing to meet societal expectations cannot be underplayed.Men play an integral, if not total, role in perpetuating this narrow idea of masculinity. Free of it, and educated, young men may stop being a burden on society in terms of crime, violence, and misogyny. This one is on us men to change.

 From the June edition of Wanted, 2023.

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