Over the weekend I read a blog entry titled “The trouble with South Africa”. The author was mystified as to why the social networking world wasn’t more outraged at the shooting of 34 protesting miners in Marikana.

I left a comment (a badly written one at that) alluding to the fact that maybe the lack of shock and horror had to do with South Africans and the state of violence they live in on a day to day basis. Maybe they had become so desensitized to protesting, crime, and violence in general that very few people batted an eye lid when they read the news.

After reflecting on the events I am ashamed to say that I myself was not as outraged as I should have been. I have shown more online protesting with regards to rhino poaching and the secrecy of information bill than I did this.

It wasn’t until last night when I was reading “Death without Weeping” an anthropological account by Nancy Scheper-Hughes questioning the naturalness of mother love that I started to connect the dots as to what I was trying to say and what might actually be an explanation for the lack of empathy regarding current events.

…emotions do not stand precede or stand outside of culture; they are part of culture and of strategic importance to our understanding of the ways in which people shape and are shaped by their world. Emotions are not reified things in and of themselves, subject to an internal, hydraulic mechanism regulating their buildup, control and release…In other words emotions are discourse; they are constructed and produced in language and in human interaction. They cannot be understood outside the cultures that produce them. (Scheeper-Hughes, 1992:430)

In this Scheeper-Highes hopes to illustrate that the ‘lack’ of grief Brazilian mothers feel for their dead neonates is not a result of poor emotional capacity or some repressed depression. Rather these are emotions that have been tailored and crafted through a history of high infant death rates. The idea of repressed grief is an emotion that is largely pushed on these women from outside cultures that cannot understand the emotions they are displaying.

Maybe the same is true for South Africans and their reaction to both the protests and the death of the 34 miners. In a country that has for many years boasted some of the world’s most violent crime, is it a far stretch to assume that people are so far clamped up in fear that they no longer realize when things are out of line. They merely swat it off as poor governance. In a country where a hijacking or robbery gets nothing more than a ‘thank God your alive’ response with very little surprise or shock from family members and friends, would it be a far stretch to understand why the death of 34 people (strangers even) entice little emotion. So maybe, just maybe, the lack of outrage and emotional response to this event is symptomatic of a much bigger issue in South African society: an emotion that is crafted in a culture of fear, an emotion that lacks empathy, and an emotion which seems devoid of what the rest of the world (read: the developed West) might consider a ‘natural’ response to these events.

Claudia Forster-Towne is a South African student completing an MSc in the Social Studies of Gender at Lund University. Currently she is doing an internship within the Conflict Cluster at the Nordic Africa Institute.