Book Review: Black Masculinities in a South African Township

Becoming Men

Becoming Men,Black Masculinities in a South African Township by Dr Malose Langa is the story of 32 boys from Alexandra, one of Johannesburg’s largest townships. Psychologist and Academic Malose Langa documented in detail what it means to be a young black man in contemporary South Africa.

His longitudinal study was conducted over a period of  about 12 years (2007 to 2018). Participants were between 13 and 18 years old at the time the research began and between 24 and 28 years old when it ended.

The book is a non-fiction genre, has academic literature. It is however accessible to any curious reader.  7 of the 10 Chapters in Becoming men include;

  1. What Makes a Man a Man?
  2. Reshaping Masculinities – Understanding the Lives of Adolescent boys
  3. Backdrop to Alex – South African Townships and Stories in Context
  4. Absent Fathers, Present Mothers
  5. Pressure to Perform – Tsotsi’s Boys vs Academic Achievement
  6. Double Standards – Dating, Sex and Girls
  7. Defying Homophobia: “This is Who I am, Finish and Klaar

What makes a man a man?

Power and struggle are often central to the experience of masculine identities. For adolescent boys , negotiating these spaces can often be heavy and costly as many often find themselves struggling to live up to the expectations of being a ‘real’ man.

Gender-based-violence is endemic in South Africa. The rate of violence towards women and children in South African has been compared to a pandemic like the current COVID-19 pandemic that’s turned the world inside-out-upside-down.

 In his study Dr Malose Langa was curious to find out how the notion of manhood contributes to violence and violent crimes.

How do boys construct their masculine identities? 

Many people, relying on sterotypes tend to associate young black males from townships such as Alexandra with crime and violence.

Usually when one thinks of young men in the township, negative images of drug abuse, alcohol, fast cars, sexual promiscuity and parties come to mind.

Is this really the case? Do societies, intended or unintended continue to give voices, power and way too much attention to toxic dominant masculine identities?  What role does the inherent political history of South African townships play in reflecting particular contexts and systems?


Becoming Men, a constant struggle in negotiating identities

Adolescent boys encounter difficulties and challenges as they negotiate their masculinity. Fear and anxiety of being an outcast in the peer group are some factors that contribute to toxic hegemonic masculinities.

Hegemonic masculinity refers to the prevailing dominant cultural stereotype of masculinity in a society , community or group. Examples of toxic hegemonic masculinities are narratives like ‘men don’t cry’ or a ‘real’ man is aggressive, dominating et cetera.

In Becoming Men, the boys discuss a range of topics including the impact of absent fathers, relationships with mothers, siblings and girls, school violence, academic performance, homophobia, gangsterism, unemployment and, in one case, prison life.

Dominant themes that emerge are deep ambivalence, self-doubt and hesitation in the boys’ approaches to alternative masculinities that are non-violent, non-sexist and non-risk-taking.

The difficulties of negotiating the multiple voices of masculinity are exposed as many of the boys appear simultaneously to comply with and oppose the prevalent norms.

The systemic structure of South Africa still does not make it any better for the poor people of this country.

Young black people still face a myriad of challenges. This was highlighted in the #FeesMustFall movement.

‘As a black student, Herman said, with a rueful, heartfelt conviction of one who had been there, you’re not only stressing about your schoolwork, like white kids or rich children. You stress about money for transport. You stress about accommodation and food. You stress about so many things, but you are still expected to pass no matter what. It is an unfair system that you are just stressing’. Pg. 137 Becoming Men


Celebrating and giving publicity to alternative voices of masculinity

In his research findings and recommendations in the book Becoming Men,  Dr Langa seems to advocate to giving platforms and popularity to alternative voices of masculinity. 

The townships as revealed in his study are a place of talent, dreams, hopes, beautiful culture and resilience.

Alternatives definitions of masculinities are taking place beyond the hegemonic toxic masculinities societies are normally exposed to.

It is therefore important to give attention to healthy, non-toxic male identities.

In as much as its important to expose toxic masculinities it is equally important to give platforms and popularity to the voices of men who reject and resist the pressures from their male peers  to comply with dominant or hegemonic masculine practises. 

Providing a rich interpretation of how emotional processes affect black adolescent boys using applied psychoanalysis, Dr Malose Langa suggests interventions and services to support and assist these young boys, especially in reducing the high-risk behaviours generally associated with hegemonic masculinity.

Some of these recommendations include creating safe spaces for older men to TALK to young men in order to guide, demystify, affirm and encourage healthier masculinities, celebrating those who’re pushing for alternative healthy masculinities and giving voices to their expression so it inspires younger generations to aspire to a more positive masculinity.

Dr Malose also hope through his research in the growing body of  literature on gender studies, masculinity studies et cetera his findings can be used to inform public policies and intervention strategies aimed at helping boys and men in South Africa to develop masculine identities that are healthy and non-violent.

This is essential reading for students, researchers and scholars of gender studies ,psychologists, youth workers, lay counsellors and teachers who work with adolescent boys will also find this book invaluable.

It would be interesting to see the views on masculinities from White, Coloured and Indian adolescents in their respective environments in order to get a broader understanding of how all South African boys form identities and negotiate masculinities.

A necessary, relevant and important body of work to read for South Africans and the world at large.



Originally posted 2020-11-18 12:57:55.