High-risk men of SA

PARALYMPIAN Oscar Pistorius – on trial for killing his girlfriend, former Port Elizabeth model Reeva Steenkamp, on Valentine’s Day last year – is in that bracket of men most likely to engage in high-risk, violent behaviour.

Anti-gun lobbyists Gun Free South Africa say men across the world in the 15- to 29-year-old age group are most at risk of being involved in gun violence.

According to a fact-sheet breaking down statistics about guns and violence released by the lobbyists for the Pistorius trial, most firearm owners are men, which makes them both the perpetrators and the primary victims of gun violence.

And it also leaves them open to a high-risk lifestyle which includes reckless driving, alcohol and substance abuse – a picture that state prosecutor Gerrie Nel tried to paint of Pistorius in his questioning of the athlete’s ex-girlfriend, Samantha Taylor, and his friend, Darren Fresco, at the High Court in Pretoria last week.

Pistorious’s alleged discharging of a firearm at Tasha’s restaurant at Melrose Arch in Johannesburg and out the sunroof of a car driving back from the Vaal River, were used by the state to portray a character who enjoys fast cars, powerful weapons, reckless abandon, disregard for the law and a lack of responsibility.

This behaviour, experts say, is not uncommon among men in this age group – especially if one is a successful sportsperson groomed in a patriarchal society.

“Developmentally speaking, at these ages identity gets formed, solidified, established. Boys need to show that they are ‘real men’, but this is a fictitious, illusive idea that is unachievable,” Johannesburg psychologist Dr Malose Langa said.

Peer pressure and the need to perform also added to risky behaviour, he said.

Another psychologist, Leon van Niekerk, says society plays a huge role in the manner in which young men construct ideas of what is right and wrong.

“Often society provides a space for people in this group to experiment – we call this a moratorium,” he said.

This gives young men some “leniency” from the rules, which leads to teenagers and young men “getting away with crime”.

That leniency was greater if you were an athlete, Van Niekerk said. “The moratorium is even more reinforced … for example the principal or the teacher [at schools] will cover for athletes. They learn in that space ‘I can get away with stuff’,” he said.

Dr Richard Matzopoulous, researcher at the SA Medical Research Council, said the physicality required and competitive nature of athletes led to a violent predisposition towards those that were weaker.

Also, most athletes felt the need to perform. They often “policed behaviour” where teammates told each other to “man up”, exposing them to the potential for more violent behaviour, Langa said.

Biological factors, like high testosterone levels at this age, add to violent behaviour.

Van Niekerk said: “Also, due to risk-taking, the adrenaline rush kicks in, making risky behaviour a thrill.”

It, however, became a concern when men in their late twenties continued to engage in such risky behaviour, he said. – Aarti J Narsee

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