Gendered Endings: Narratives of Male and Female
Suicides in the South African Lowveld
Published online: 23 March 2012
? Springer Science+Business Media, LLC 2012
social solidarity downplays the salience of gendered concerns in suicide. But gen-
dered inequalities have had a negative impact: worldwide significantly more men
than women perpetrate fatal suicides. Drawing on narratives of 52 fatal suicides in
Bushbuckridge, South Africa, this article suggests that Bourdieu’s concepts of
‘symbolic violence’ and ‘masculine domination’ provide a more appropriate
framework for understanding this paradox. I show that the thwarting of investments
in dominant masculine positions have been the major precursor to suicides by men.
Men tended to take their own lives as a means of escape. By contrast, women
perpetrated suicide to protest against the miserable consequences of being domi-
nated by men. However, contra the assumption of Bourdieu’s concept of ‘habitus’,
the narrators of suicide stories did reflect critically upon gender constructs.
Durkheim’s classical theory of suicide rates being a negative index of
Suicide ? Gender ? Masculine domination ? Bushbuckridge ?
Two of the most consistent findings in the enormous international literature on the
epidemiology of suicide are that gendered concerns directly influence the proclivity
of persons to commit suicide; and that significantly more men than women are
Due to the extremely sensitive nature of the information I present, I have used pseudonyms to disguise
the name of the village and also the personal names in the article. Unless stated otherwise, all local terms
are in Northern Sotho.
I. Niehaus (&)
School of Social Sciences, Brunel University, Uxbridge, Middlesex UB83PH, UK
Cult Med Psychiatry (2012) 36:327-347
victims of fatal suicides. This is true of Europe and of the United States, and also of
many other social contexts. Anthropological studies document that men were
victims of 90 % of reported suicides on the Micronesian Island of Truk between
1970 and 1985 (Hezel 1987, p. 284), 70 % of reported suicides in Western Samoa
between 1981 and 1983 (C. and L. MacPherson and La’avasa 1987, p. 309), and 92
% of those amongst American Indians in New Mexico between 1980 and 1987 (Van
Winkle et al. 1993, p. 307). The same is true of studies of Africa. In the 1950s, 88 %
of the suicide victims in Northern Rhodesia were men (Chaplin 1961, p. 147). In the
same time period, men comprised 69 % of suicide victims amongst the Busoga, 61
% amongst the Nyoro, and 59 % amongst the Gisu (Bohannan 1960, p. 261).1Only
certain forms of suicide, such as overdoses on medical drugs, are predominant
amongst women (Littlewood and Lipsedge 1987, p. 303).
Yet, social theory seldom adequately accounts for these findings. In Le Suicide,
which remains the single most influential monograph on this topic, Durkheim cites
an impressive range of statistics, confirming these trends.2But he pays scant
attention to gender. Durkheim’s primary contribution is to show how rates of suicide
in Europe were an index of social solidarity, and of the individual’s integration into
social concerns. This is the basis of his distinction between ‘egoistic’, ‘anomic’ and
‘altruistic’ suicide. ‘Egoistic suicide occurs with the rise of modern individualism,
and varies ‘inversely with the degree of integration of the social groups of which the
individual is part’ (p. 210). ‘Anomic suicide’ is closely related and is the product of
the increasing normlessness and inadequate regulation over the individual’s
activities (p. 25). By contrast, ‘altruistic suicide’ occurs where individuality is too
weakly developed. One example is widow suicide in traditional India.3Durkheim
only explicitly mentions gender under the rubric of ‘conjugal anomie’. He observes
that there were few suicides where the ‘family spirit was strong’, but many amongst
divorced persons. However, where divorce was less restrictive, male suicide
increased and female suicide decreased (p. 269). This, Durkheim suggests, was
because husbands found tranquillity in a situation where their own desires were
restricted, but the fixed object of their passion was forbidden to fail them. By
contrast—wives found tranquillity by following their own instincts, and desired
liberty. Hence, wives experienced monogamy as restraining, and as preventing them
from changing their lot when it became intolerable (Durkheim 1951, p. 274).
The above-mentioned studies do contain elaborate discussions of men’s suicides.
But these tend to be seen as a response to general social problems rather than more
particular masculine concerns. This is apparent in C. and L. McPherson’s (1987)
suggestion that in Western Samoa young men commit ‘anomic suicide’, and older
men ‘altruistic suicide’. The McPhersons contend that in the 1980s the gap between
1Only amongst the Luo of Kenya did women suicide victims outnumber men: 59% of the Luo suicide
victims were women (Bohannan 1960, p. 261).
2See, for example, the tables on suicide by marital status in different European countries (Durkheim
1951, pp. 176–178, 183).
3A final form fatalistic suicide, stemming from excessive regulation is relegated to a brief footnote. This
form involves ‘persons with futures pitilessly blocked and passions violently choked by oppressive
discipline’. In this regard, he briefly alludes to the suicide of slaves, and of married women who are
childless (Durkheim 1951, p. 276).
328 Cult Med Psychiatry (2012) 36:327–347
young men’s expectations and opportunities widened. Whilst education and the
media made young men aware of alternative lifestyles, there were few means to
satisfy their inflated hopes. Productive land was limited, the wage economy
stagnated, and the opportunities for advanced education or for out-migration
deceased. The disappointments that arose in this context triggered suicides. Older
men, they argue, faced a different set of constraints. In these authoritarian
communities of Western Samoa, powerful kinship bonds prevailed and the
disreputable conduct of older men of high status might bring the whole group
into ridicule, causing innocents to suffer. For them, suicide offers a means of escape.
A Samoan saying states ‘death is better than shame’ (sili le oti i lo le ma).
Social theorists have focused more explicitly on gendered concerns in women’s
suicides. Marx (1999/1864) argued that suicides by women in nineteenth century
Paris was a direct outcome of the tyranny of the French bourgeois family. Marx saw
oppressive family relations as the root cause for suicides by a woman whose family
berated her for losing her virginity, a wife subjected to spousal abuse, and by a
young woman who was impregnated by her aunt’s husband but refused an abortion.
He also condemned the abuse of parental authority as a ‘cruel substitute for all the
submissiveness and dependency people in bourgeois society engage in’ (p. 54), and
also the notion that a wife is the property of the husband.4
Firth (1961), Littlewood and Lipsedge (1987), and feminist anthropologists such
as Strathern (1986) and Counts (1980), pursue this line of argument. They suggest
that in situations where women lacked any alternative means of influencing the
behaviour of others, women used para-suicidal behaviour to dramatise their plight
and pressure others into accepting their will. When aggrieved Tikopian women
swam out to sea, men usually took up canoes to find them (Firth 1961). In a
desperate attempt to gain sympathy and support, Western women exaggerated their
extrusion from the community by overdosing on psycho-topic drugs with someone
else close by (Littlewood and Lipsedge 1987). Strathern (1986) and Counts (1980)
contend that in Papua New Guinea women’s suicides rather aimed to shame
supposed offenders.5Strathern shows that Mount Hagen women killed themselves
out of grievance-sickness and revenge-anger called popokl. Through suicide they
pointed out the guilt of others who were responsible for their misery. Counts insisted
that amongst the Kaliai abused women who had no legal rights in their husband’s
village, could not overtly challenge male authority. These women used suicide as a
form of political action to communicate a powerful message, and to alert the
community into supporting vulnerable women. The deceased women’s kin often
sought revenge, and might actually retaliate against her tormentors (Counts 1980).
Whilst the emphasis on gendered social inequality is an important theoretical
advance, these approaches still fail to explain why the dominant are more likely to
commit suicide that the dominated.
4Marx (1999/1864) refers to only one suicide by a man: a member of the Royal guard who lost his job
and killed himself rather than to be a burden to his family.
5Strathern (1986) and Counts (1980) draw on psychoanalytic theory that a desire to kill another person is
entwined in the act of killing oneself. Such suicides have been described as Samsonic—so named after
the Bibical hero who pulled down the pillars of the house on his own head to kill his enemies (Jeffreys
Cult Med Psychiatry (2012) 36:327–347329
More recent writings by Moore (1994) and by Bourdieu (2001) might well enable
us to transcend this impasse. Moore (1994) argues that it is necessary to distinguish
between ‘gender as it is constructed’ and ‘gender as it is lived’. She argues that
whilst discourses construct men as active, aggressive, thrusting and powerful, these
representations have only the most tangential relations to the behaviours, attributes
and self- images of individual men. To acquire gender identities, individual men
invest in certain of the diverse subject positions that these discourses provide
(p. 61). Men fantasise about the powerful identities that are inscribed in gender
hierarchies, and commit themselves emotionally to these identities, and have a
vested interest in them. But these investments are often thwarted. A crisis of self-
representation ensues when men face contrary expectations, and when other persons
refuse to take up or to sustain subject positions vis-a-vis themselves. The result is a
crisis of self-representation. Moore (1994) contends that violence reconfirms the
nature of masculinity otherwise denied, and represents a struggle for the
maintenance of certain fantasies of identity and power (p. 70). Self-eradication
offers another resolution to the crisis of self-representation.
From this perspective, men commit suicide as a means of escape from situations
in which they fail to display dominance. Bourdieu (2001) reinforces this view by
insisting that masculine domination also inflicts symbolic violence on men—in so
far as it constrains men to become ‘dominated by domination’. Women, by contrast
are more likely to commit suicide as a form of protest when they suffer excessively
from masculine domination. This is not to say that women’s investments in
feminine subject positions cannot also be thwarted.
Suicide in Bushbuckridge, South Africa
This study draws on accounts of 52 fatal suicides that I recorded in Impalahoek, the
South African village where I have been doing intermittent ethnographic fieldwork
since 1990. Thirty-nine (75 %) were perpetrated by men and 13 (25 %) by women.
Situated in the Bushbuckridge municipality of South Africa’s north eastern
periphery, Impalahoek has a population of about 20,000 Northern Sotho and
Tsonga-speakers. During my annual visits to the field, informants regularly told me
about the suicides of their kin, neighbours, friends and colleagues as ‘newsworthy
events’ that interrupted the usual flow of life (Malkki 1997). Although I did not
personally observe any of these events, the accounts that I attained were often
In telling me about these suicides, my interviewees generally valued the
opportunity to speak out against men who took their own lives for no good reason,
and also against the oppressive behaviour of others who drove women to take their
own lives. Their accounts did not always provide a detailed, nor even an accurate,
6It is important to distinguish between narratives of suicide and actual suicidal behaviour. The
information that I present relates only to the former. However, it is important to bear in mind that these
two domains of social reality are not discrete. The act of killing oneself is not a solo venture. Suicide is
rich with meanings and intentions, deeply rooted in culturally patterned forms of thought and emotion
(Douglas 1967). Hence, narratives of suicide provide a ‘script’ for individual acts of suicide (Kral 1996).
330 Cult Med Psychiatry (2012) 36:327–347
portrayal of the events that transpired. Yet, as witnesses they were a crucial party to
performances of violence (Riches 1986), who shared the life worlds of the killers
and victims, and understood the ‘grammar of motives’ involved (Burke 1955).
It is not purely the quantitative discrepancy between male and female suicides
that differ. Tables 1, 2, 3, 4, below, based on the information that I recorded in
Impalahoek,show other differences. Male suicide victims are more likely to be
slightly older and single, to hang or shoot themselves in their own rooms, and to
experience insanity or guilt prior to suicide. Women victims tend to be younger and
married, resort to more visible and violent methods, such as burning themselves in
public, and to experience marital problems. This supports the interpretation of male
suicide as a form of escape from situations in which men fail to dominate, and of
female suicide as a form of protest against experiences of subordination.
The suicides that I recorded do not constitute a ‘representative sample’ of those
committed in South Africa, or even in Bushbuckridge. Yet, the gender discrepancy
that I observed is in line with most other South African studies. A far more
statistically respected study in Pietermaritzburg found the ratio of black male to
black female suicides to be 5.8:1 (Wassenaar et al. 2000). Other studies suggest that
in South Africa as a whole the suicide rate was 24.5 per 100,000 amongst men and
6.9 per 100,000 amongst women during 2003 (Matzopoulos 2004).
However, in South African studies of suicide, the salience of race has eclipsed
that of gender. Meer’s influential study Race and Suicide in South Africa (1976)
uses statistics from the Durban inquest court to refute many Durkheimian
Table 1 The distribution of
fatal suicides by age and sex of
the victims, Bushbuckridge,
Age categoriesMF Total
Totals39 13 52
Table 2 The distribution of
fatal suicides by marital status
and by sex of the victims,
Marital StatusMF Total
Single 174 21
Married 169 25
Totals 3913 52
Cult Med Psychiatry (2012) 36:327–347 331
assumptions. She suggests that social deprivation is the most constant social factor
in suicide: it is the poor, dispossessed and powerless who ‘live in the shadow of
suicide’. She argues that under the apartheid system repressive white authority was
a persistent source of frustration and hopelessness to blacks. Only studies of the
extremely stressful conditions of work within the South Africa’s security services,
point to the greater proclivity of men to take their own lives (Pienaar 2003).
Gender ‘Constructed’ and ‘Lived’
A fuller understanding of accounts of suicide thus requires a focus on structures and
ideologies of masculine domination in Bushbuckridge. These have changed
significantly through time as wage labour replaced subsistence agriculture as the
chief source of earning a livelihood, and again in response to industrial de-
Following the implementation of the 1913 Land Act, Bushbuckridge was
scheduled for exclusive occupation by Africans. Its residents were rent tenants who
paid taxes to land holding companies for residential, cultivation, and stock-keeping
Table 3 The distribution of
fatal suicides by method and sex
of the victims, 1991–2009
Totals39 13 52
Table 4 The distribution of
fatal suicides by major
preceding event, Bushbuckridge,
Significant eventMF Totals
Frustrated love affair527
Marital problems96 15
Conflict with affines224
Conflict with parent112
Conflict with neighbour101
Sickness and insanity121 13
Accused of witchcraft202
Motor vehicle accident202
Guilt after homicide101
332Cult Med Psychiatry (2012) 36:327–347
rights. The settlement pattern was one of scattered metse (sing. motse, lit. ‘village’
or ‘family’). The motse was a cluster of co-resident agnates rather than a strict
patrilineage (Kuper 1975, pp. 71–72). Its inhabitants were typically a ‘father’
(called mong wa motse ‘owner of the of the village’), his wives, sons, daughters- in-
law, unmarried daughters, and grandchildren.
Like most southern Bantu, Northern Sotho and Shangaan kinship systems were
Iroquois, and were marked by bifurcate merging. The father’s and mother’s siblings
of the same sex were known by the same term, cross-sex siblings of parents by
different terms, and parallel cousins were equated with siblings. In all these
relations, there was a pervasive elder-younger distinction. Cross cousins on both
sides were classified together with no reference to age or sex, and shared a joking
relationship (Hammond-Tooke 1981, pp. 24–26). Whilst Northern-Sotho speakers
often married their cross-cousins (MBD or FZS), Shangaans avoided marrying any
relatives. However, in both cases arranged marriages were common, and parents
assisted their sons in paying bridewealth cattle. Residential rules were strictly
patrilocal. A wife moved into the household of her husband’s parents, and was
expected to work for them. But she still retained membership of her father’s descent
group and was still addressed by her maiden surname. Only after the husband’s
younger brothers had all married, could he and his wife set up their own homestead.
Men perceived polygyny as the ideal, but they were expected to get the approval of
their wives before entering into additional marriages (Hammond-Tooke 1981,
During this period of dispersed settlement, the motse was effectively a corporate
group, and despite the authority of elderly men, a strict gendered division of labour
prevailed. Women planted maize, sorghum, millet, beans, melons, marrow, sweet
potatoes and ground nuts, hoed, cut thatching grass, and raised pigs and chickens.
Within the home, a young wife worked under the constant surveillance of her
mother-in-law, and had to act in a subservient manner at all times. Men uprooted
trees, ploughed, built homes and tended to cattle, goats and sheep. Other tasks such
as sorghum threshing were not gender specific. Most metse met their subsistence
requirements from what they themselves produced, and men intermittently worked
on the Pilgrim’s Rest gold mines.
With the advent of apartheid in 1948, Bushbuckridge became a Native Reserve.
The farms now became reception sites for large numbers of people who were
displaced by afforestation projects, and by the mechanisation of production
operations on white-owned farms. ‘Agricultural betterment’ schemes (De Wet
1995) were implemented in 1960. Land was subdivided into residential settlements,
arable lands and grazing camps. All households were relocated onto the residential
stands, and very few retained their arable fields. Relocation drastically redefined the
nature of domestic units. Given the smaller size of residential stands, large agnatic
clusters were fragmented into smaller segments, and sons were allocated small
residential stands separate from those of their fathers. Sons now paid their own
taxes, kept their cattle in separate kraals, and their wives cultivated different
gardens. The fragmentation of the motse undermined the material basis of agnatic
cooperation. Since subsistence agriculture was no longer a viable option,
households became almost completely dependent upon wage earnings, generated
Cult Med Psychiatry (2012) 36:327–347333
by migrant labourers, outside the group. Because cattle herds were greatly
diminished parents could no longer assist their sons with bride-wealth. Sons were
now expected to pay bridewealth themselves in cash, and many young men incurred
significant bridewealth debts. This meant that the status of wives was now more
ambiguous, and that wives could retain recourse to the protection of their agnates
throughout their conjugal lives.
Earlier gender parallelism gradually gave way to vertical stratification between
men and women. A social survey conducted in 1990 of 87 households show how
men monopolised wage earning: 113 (88 %) of the 143 men of working age were
employed, as opposed to only 43 (17 %) of the 145 women. Women had previously
played the predominant role in agriculture. Now their survival depended upon their
ability to establish relations with male wage-earners. In this situation, conjugal
bonds became disharmonious and fragile. This is partly because labour migration
obliged husbands to live separately from their dependents for the greatest part of
their working lives. Extra-marital liaisons called bonyats ˇi, were now much more
pervasive. Previously, husbands only kept paramours when their wives were
pregnant or observed postpartum taboos: now, with the geographical separation of
spouses, many husbands permanently kept paramours. Wives were obliged to
tolerate the misdemeanours of their husbands, but they readily deserted any man
whom was consistently unemployed.
South Africa’s first democratic elections took place in 1994. Bushbuckridge now
became part of the Mpumalanga Province. But few promises of prosperity have
materialised. Although government had drastically improved social welfare
payments such as pensions, and constructed thousands of homes, Bushbuckridge
still exhibited many of the stereotypical features of a Native Reserve. These include
high rates of unemployment, marital breakdown, witchcraft accusations and
Villagers had to cope with the devastating impacts of de-industrialisation and of
AIDS. Throughout South Africa significant job losses occurred, particularly
amongst men. Between 1993 and 1999 the number of labourers employed in gold
mining decreased from 428,003 to 195,681; coal mining from 51,267 to 21,155;
manufacturing from 1,409,977 to 1,286,694; and in construction from 355,114 to
219,797 (SAIRR 2001, pp. 336–8). These trends were also apparent in Bushbuck-
ridge. During 2003 my research assistant and I revisited all previously sampled
households: 105 (56 %) of the 187 ‘economically active’ men were now employed,
as were 54 (35 %) of the 250 women. These chances have, in many instances,
eroded the material basis of masculine domination. Many younger men feel
permanently excluded from the labour market, with little changes of paying bride
wealth, marrying, and of effectively establishing paternity over children. At the
same time, equal employment practices in the civil service, and social security
payments have enabled women to attain greater independence from men.
Despite these changes, the old masculine dominated order has continued to exist
as a ‘virtual reality’, removed in time and space from the contexts in which it was
originally produced (Van Binsbergen 2001). Men still aspired to being a ‘man of
men’ (monna nna) who supports their women and dependents, is decisive and brave,
and has the final say at home. They perceived negative masculine counter-types to
334 Cult Med Psychiatry (2012) 36:327–347
be ‘idiots’ (sepolopoko), ‘cowards’ (lepshega), and ‘men without finesse’ (mpara),
who are controlled by women and juniors; as well as ‘bachelors’ (kgope) who lived
by themselves. When a man died without leaving progeny, I was told, his family
members would stick a burning log up the anus of his corpse to show their
Ideologies of masculine pre-eminence were also evident in the emphasis on
etiquette and rules of ‘respect’ (hlompa) in everyday social intercourse. Juniors and
women were expected to acknowledge the seniority of any older man by standing
when he enters a room, offering him a seat, and by holding both hands when
greeting him (or by kneeling). They should also refrain from looking straight into
his eyes, calling him by name, waving for him to come, laughing when he commits
a mistake, stepping over any part of his body, asking where he had been, saying that
he is drunk, and from retaliating when he punishes them.
Despite a growing emphasis on gender equity in South African public life,
women in Bushbuckridge still experienced profound subordination within the
domestic domain. At home the mosadi sadi (‘woman of women’) embodied the
ideal of feminine personhood. She was respected by her husband and advised him
wisely. She took care of her children, her parents-in- law, her house, and of her
husband’s property. She was reliable, honest and brave. The counter-types of
feminine personhood were the sefebefebe and mapanyula. They were whores who
went around with many men, but were respected by none. The nymba did not bear
children. Her husband was entitled to marry an additional wife. But villagers
sometimes interpreted childlessness as a calling by the ancestors to become a
diviner. Hence her stigma was not quite as great as that of the dishonourable kgope.
Financially independent women often avoided marriage, preferring to head their
These constructs of gender—still premised upon a situation of masculine
domination—constituted an important subtext in the narratives about suicide. Men’s
suicides occurred in the context of a disjuncture between notions of masculinity that
were appropriate during the industrial era, and their actual experiences of dis-
empowerment in a rapidly de-industrialising world.7The distress of women suicide
victims occurred in the context of a disjuncture between contemporary discourses of
rights, and continued experiences of subordination.
Men’s Suicides: Thwarted Domination
My informants were adamant that the events preceding young men’s suicides
differed from those of adult men. They said that some young male suicide victims
were deprived of a stable family life, and faced unforgiving parents. For example,
Rufus Selepe first lived with his grandmother, but later went to live with his father.
But here his stepmother fought with him and she refused to feed him any longer.
7James (1988) observes a similar temporal displacement of discourses about gender amongst the Uduk
of Sudan. Though the Uduk were agriculturalists at the time of her fieldwork, they used a lexicon from an
earlier era of hunting to discuss constructs of masculinity.
Cult Med Psychiatry (2012) 36:327–347335
But failure to act as a proper man counted as much as the perceived need to
belong to stable domestic units. Narratives of suicide foreground concerns about the
precarious future of young men. Very much as the situation in Western Samoa
(C. and L. MacPherson and La’avasa 1987) and in India (Staples and James 2012),
there was a widening gap in South Africa between young men’s expectations and
opportunities. Given the inadequate schooling facilities, few youth had realistic
hopes for advanced education. In a stagnating wage economy, many men faced
prolonged unemployment. Rebhun and Linda-Anne (2001) argues that in the case of
north-eastern Brazil, when conventional avenues for demonstrating masculinity
such as wage-earning and marriage is not available, young men perform hyper-
masculine macho acts through displays of aggression, drinking and womanizing.
Her argument illuminates important aspects of the local situation.
In this context, young men were also extremely sensitive to situations that
brought dishonour. The case of Ruben Shai shows the convergence of several
factors. After he completed high school, Ruben enrolled for a BA degree at Venda
University, and his brothers—a policeman and a building contractor—paid for his
studies. But when Ruben impregnated a high school student, his brothers threatened
to stop paying his fees, saying that they would not support both him and his family.
Then Ruben experienced a problem with his examination results. He received
failing grades for subjects that he had not even registered for. Ruben complained
vehemently to his lecturers and to the registrar—but this was to no avail. Hence he
became a university drop out. On the day that he committed suicide, Ruben took his
mother and sisters-in law to another village in his brother’s car—but he badly
damaged the rear door when he reversed. Ruben’s brother was furious, and
reportedly insulted him by saying, ‘You’re useless. You better leave this family. If
you don’t go, I’ll leave’. At dusk Ruben hanged himself in his own room. ‘Ruben
wanted to be successful like his brothers. He wanted to have his own family and a
car. But he could not make it educationally.’ Ruben clearly perceived respect
amongst his siblings and peers as a prerequisite to social acceptance and social
integration in the Durkheimian sense.
For adult men, the thwarting of investments into conventional avenues of
masculine status was more clearly apparent. Trouble in marital and sexual relations
preceded fourteen cases of suicide; financial debt three; illness and insanity twelve,
dishonourable conduct three, and interpersonal conflict six cases. These categor-
isations of suicide prefigured the explanations for particular suicides (see Chua, this
Men experienced failure to sustain proper conjugal relations as a threat to their very
social being. Bourdieu (2001) argues that in masculine praxis contradictions can
arise between the sex act and romantic passion. The sex act belongs to the logic of
conquest and appropriation, and is seen as a manifestation of men’s primacy,
virility, prowess and honour. Pleasure is derived from an extreme form of
submission, and any sexual encounter is an indirect challenge to the masculinity of
336 Cult Med Psychiatry (2012) 36:327–347
other men (pp. 18–20). However, love and romantic passion could potentially bring
about a reversal in relations of domination (p. 110).
Being a bachelor was not by itself a sufficiently powerful reason for suicide.
Rather, it was the humiliating and shameful experience of being cheated by one’s
wife, or of being rejected by one’s lover that triggered suicide. Amongst the most
common responses to my questions about the reasons for men’s suicides were, ‘He
was not on good terms with his wife’ and, ‘His wife was in love with other men.’
Men’s failure to control women could even outweigh their financial success.
Neighbours told me of Patrick Shabangu, a wealthy businessman who owned two
general dealer stores, a cafe ´ and a bar lounge with his brother. He married Maureen
Nokeri, a woman from a much poorer family, and he paid for her to attend school
and teacher’s college. After they divorced, Patrick became extremely depressed. He
desperately wanted to reunite with his former wife, and he begged her to return. But
this was to no avail. One evening he came to her home, knocked on the door, but
heard the voice of another man from inside her room. To his dismay, he discovered
that Maureen’s new lover was only a taxi driver. That evening, Patrick put a pipe
from the exhaust through the window of his van, and gassed himself.
Like experiences of being rejected by a wife or a lover, men’s failure as providers
undermined their masculine status. Sixteen (48 %) of the thirty- six male suicide
victims were unemployed. Yet there was not a single man who had committed
suicide simply because he had lost a job. On the periphery of an unstable regional
economy, job losses were too common an experience in men’s lives.
Men were more concerned about the inability to settle financial debts, and about
being unemployable, and as we shall see below, this concern was clearly apparent in
many children to support. Dan was given custody over three children from a previous
and Dan had one child. In addition, Dan had undertaken to provide for his deceased
brother’s two children, and one of them, Dan’s niece, had her own baby.
To make matters worse, three of Dan’s dependants attended institutions of higher
learning. Robina’s first born son studied at the University of Pretoria, Ester’s son at
a technical college in Johannesburg, and Dan’s niece attended a technical college in
Nelspruit. Because Dan had been unable to pay their fees, the institutions withheld
the results of their June examinations, and threatened to refuse them re-admission.
Dan could no longer tolerate their pleas for money and borrowed R8, 000 from a
money lender at the exorbitant monthly interest rate of 50 per cent. Dan was
confident that he would be able to repay the loan—as soon as he received his annual
bonus. Failing that, he could use his pension money. In November, Dan discovered
that Ester’s son had lied to him all along. The young man never registered at the
Cult Med Psychiatry (2012) 36:327–347337
technical college, but had misused the money in Johannesburg instead. My
informant described Dan as an idiot. ‘A child is a child. You should always wait for
the account, pay with a bank guaranteed cheque, and get the receipt.’ Dan also
began to doubt that he would ever be able to pay the loan shark, and feared that his
interests would forever accumulate.
On the evening of 15 November Dan asked his mother, ‘If I die, please take care
of my children.’ But Dan’s mother ignored these remarks: she thought that he was
drunk and spoke nonsense. That night Dan got out of bed and told his wife he was
going to the toilet. He entered the children’s bedroom, tied a noose around the beam
of their roof, and hanged himself. The children were fast asleep and only saw Dan’s
corpse dangling from their roof when they awoke the next morning. According to
rumours Dan left a note that read, ‘I’m sick and tired of living. Life is financially too
trying for me. Life is no more okay. Young brother, look after the children for me.
Control my assets. I have worked hard for eighteen years.’
This case shows a definite connection between male suicides and harsh economic
realities. Frustration and despair was not merely generated by prolonged
unemployment, but also by increased dependency ratios, occurring at a time when
villagers could no longer plausibly attribute misfortune to the structural violence of
apartheid (2001, pp. 211–214).
Illness and ‘Insanity’
Illness and ‘insanity’ featured very prominently in men’s suicides. Residents of
Bushbuckridge seldom spoke openly about sickness and used a limited vocabulary
to refer to physical and psychological pathologies. In fact, silence was a dominant
response to stigmatising conditions, such as HIV and AIDS (McNeill and Niehaus
2009). For this reason, it is extremely hard to ascertain to what extent AIDS-related
sicknesses led to suicide. Moreover, villagers used the rather broad term go gafa—
possibly best translated as ‘insanity’ or ‘madness’- to denote various forms of
mental distress and behavioural abnormalities including what psychiatrists might
label ‘depression’ and ‘bipolar disorder’. However, villagers clearly perceived
sickness as antithetical to the ideal of an active and dominant masculine persona.
Illness and ‘insanity’ thwarted men’s prospects of ever being autonomous, earning a
living, paying bridewealth, of supporting dependants, and of becoming a household
head. Even more tragically, it reduced men to a miserable state of dependency.
‘Insanity’, in particular, was a prime attribute of negative masculine counter-types.
Men in their twenties and thirties experienced ill health as obstructing their paths
to full manhood. Many male suicide victims who suffered from ill health had left
their parental homes, but were unable to establish their own homesteads. Their
sisters often cared for them. They suffered from tuberculosis or alcoholism, or were
described as ‘not 100 % normal’, ‘moody and temperamental’ or ‘somewhat
mentally retarded’. A neighbour remarked upon the condition of a suicide victim
called Alec Mzimba:
Alec used to pretend that he was a prophet. He used to shout and make a noise
just like those Zionist prophets. At home he used to tell people, ‘You will die!
338 Cult Med Psychiatry (2012) 36:327–347
Go away from here!’ When there was a family gathering Alec would move
away without saying anything. After Alec visited his pregnant sister in
hospital he became ill. We always knew him as someone who spoke too much,
but now he became completely quiet. He looked inhuman. He never associated
himself with other people. The people complained that he stole corrugated
irons where he repaired homes and his sister quarrelled with him because he
smoked so much dagga [cannabis]. He once broke his leg.
For older, male suicide victims, ill health meant rapid downward social mobility,
job losses, the breakdown of their marriages, and being demoted in the ranks of
men. Platos Mnisi who was a steel construction worker, fell from a high building
and fractured his skull. Platos was so badly injured that he was hospitalised for nine
months. But even after he was released, Platos was not completely healed: he had
lost his speech and hearing, and could only recognise his mother and his sister.
Platos’ wife left him to marry an employee of an electricity corporation. A
neighbour recalled, ‘Platos received workmen’s compensation, but he was useless.
He was finished. Like a cripple he was a burden to his family. Platos used to be a
wise man, but now he was a fool.’ Such experiences resonate with what post-
Freudians refer to as fears of regression to the helplessness of infancy (M. and
D. Gilmore and David 1979, Cooper 1986). In these situations, suicide eliminated
the vast discrepancy between masculine fantasies of power, and the realities of
Durkheim (1951) suggests that in the case of ‘altruistic suicides’ the victim had not
been wronged, but he himself had committed some wrong. In this case, suicide was
an attempt by the victim to spare the self, family, or community stigma and shame.
We can also see altruism as an attribute of masculine domination: men were
authoritative enough to represent the kin group and sufficiently elevated to be
But as shown by the cases below, male suicide victims often displayed greater
concern about their own reputation, than that of their kin. Neighbours remarked how
Hoffice Chiloane—an elderly man—proved himself unworthy of being a household
head and found shame hard to bear. One evening Hoffice was so drunk that he
urinated and passed faeces in his own bed. His wife was furious, woke up their
children, and showed them what he had done. Hoffice felt utterly disgraced. The
next day, he hanged himself.
In other cases, men tried to eradicate themselves under pressure of legal
prosecution, or social ostracism. Two men committed suicide because they had
killed others, and three because they had been accused of witchcraft. Kally Moeng,
who was a policeman, arrived at home unexpectedly, and found that his wife was
having a party with other men. Whilst some men grilled meat, his wife danced with
a teacher. Kally asked the men, ‘What’s going on here?’ But he did not receive any
answer. In the heat of the moment, he used his service pistol to shoot the teacher in
the chest. Kally also fired three bullets at his wife, who crouched behind the sofa.
Cult Med Psychiatry (2012) 36:327–347339
When Kally realised that he had killed the teacher, and wounded his wife, he put the
revolver to his own head and pulled the trigger.
Baumeister (1990) and Shneidman (1993) suggest that escape from a negative
self and from psychological pain is common in all forms of suicide. Narratives
about male suicides in Bushbuckridge emphasised these processes. With minor
exceptions, men’s suicides were hidden. Men tended to commit suicide in private,
where nobody could see them. Twenty-seven hanged themselves in their own
rooms, in outside pit latrines, or in isolated places in the forest (see Table 3, above).
Hardly any men communicated their intent to commit suicide, and few left suicide
notes, blaming others for their deaths. Men’s suicides were usually fatal.
Women’s Suicides: Protesting Subordination
Narratives of women’s suicides emphasise the miserable consequences of subor-
dination to parents, lovers, husbands and affines.
Eight of the thirteen women suicide victims were younger than 24 years. The
greater proclivity of younger women to commit suicide is indicative of their
subordinate positions within the households of their parents. Daphney Lebala, who
was also still a high school student, had been humiliated in the eyes of her parents.
One evening Daphney went to visit her boyfriend in Violetbank, but he and his
friends raped her. Daphney’s mother scolded her and did not accept her excuse that
the boys had compelled her to accompany them. She phoned Daphney’s father, a
policeman in Gauteng, and told him that in his absence Daphney went about with
undesirable men and had been raped. Her father drove to Bushbuckridge to lay a
charge against the rapists, but when he arrived, he found that Daphney had already
This factor is also apparent in Johannes Mathonsi’s account of the suicide
attempt by his own daughter, Doreen. Johannes described himself as a staunch
Zionist, who did not tolerate his daughter’s love affairs with irresponsible young
men. Whilst she was still in school, Doreen eloped with a fruit vendor’s son. But
Johannes refused to accept bridewealth: he told me that although the young man was
securely employed, he had a criminal record, and had once stolen R3, 000 from his
paternal uncle. The next year Doreen eloped with the son of a diviner. She once
disappeared for the entire weekend, and only returned at seven o’ clock on the
Sunday evening. Johannes told me that he had seldom been so angry:
When Doreen returned I said nothing. I waited until nine o’ clock when she
was in bed. Then I woke her and beat her with a stick. Then I grabbed her and
dragged her to the dining room. I asked, ‘Where do you come from? Why have
you been away for so long? I told you not to go around with boys!’ She said
nothing. Then I beat her again and again. Doreen broke the window and
jumped through it, and ran into the darkness. We looked for her the whole
night. Her aunts told me, ‘Maybe you beat her and she died at the river.’ But I
replied, ‘Let her die!’
340 Cult Med Psychiatry (2012) 36:327–347
Doreen stayed with her paternal aunt for two days, and returned to her parents’
home only after her aunt had pleaded on her behalf. But only a month after the
incident, Doreen’s mother again saw her in the boy’s company, and scolded her.
That evening Doreen drank an overdose of sleeping tablets. She clearly saw her
overbearing parents as obstructing her desire for love.
Young women also committed suicide when they failed to establish stable
relationships with male lovers, and when their aspirations of being wives with
supportive husbands, mothers with their own children, and to having their own
home, seemed to have no realistic chance of fulfilment. In the terms as outlined by
Moore (1994), young women’s investments in idealised feminine subject positions
had been thwarted. A few women also committed suicide after they became
pregnant out of wedlock, and had very little chance of taking good care of their
babies. Refilwe Mokgope became pregnant when she was only sixteen years old.
She found it extremely difficult to support the baby because she was still in school,
and was from a desperately poor family. Her father had absconded, and her mother
supported three daughters with the meagre profits she made from selling fruit and
vegetables at the local market. After Refilwe quarrelled with her boyfriend, and told
him that she no longer wished to see him, she became extremely depressed and
The circumstances under which adult women committed suicide differed greatly
from those that preceded the suicides of adult men. Women’s suicides were a
response to problematic social relations that they experienced in marriage. These
suicides were indignant. Two adult women suicide victims felt that they had been
mistreated by their affines, and seven felt that they were abused by their husbands.
Their suicides expressed a sense of hurt, disappointment and rage (Hollan 1990).
For example, Joyce Maatsie’s cousin told me that she was made to feel like an
intruder in the home of her in- laws. Her husband was a divorcee and the four
children of his previous marriage still lived with him. It also seemed to Joyce’s as if
her affines preferred her husband’s previous wife. Once her husband’s former wife
came to visit his home and took sugar, maize meal and tea from Joyce’s kitchen.
When Joyce objected, her sister- in- law reportedly told her, ‘Keep quiet! This is not
your place! She is the owner of the bridewealth.’
Many accounts relay how husbands had refused to support their wives
financially, or had insulted their wives’ dignity by being indiscreet about their
extra- marital liaisons. Merriam Mohlala’s kin told me that although her husband
worked at the Penge asbestos mine, he very seldom supported her and their three
children. Whilst he had extramarital affairs and drank heavily, she had to fetch
firewood in the mountains and sell it in the village to feed their children. The
summer rains of 1990 were exceptionally good and Merriam pleaded with him to
pay merely R30 for a tractor owner to plough their field. But her pleas fell on deaf
ears. Merriam was pregnant, but had to cultivate the entire field with a hoe. Yet in
the very same week her husband gave his cousin R200. Feita Mogakane caught her
husband and his paramour having sexual intercourse in her bed, and she beat her
husband’s paramour with a walking stick (knobkerrie). Feita committed suicide
when, to everyone’s surprise, her husband chased her from her own home. Not a
single adult woman committed suicide because she had been consistently
Cult Med Psychiatry (2012) 36:327–347341
unemployed, suffered from illness or insanity, or had been guilty of a shameful,
One cannot exclude escape from violence and patriarchy as a motive for
women’s suicides. But the narratives that I collected were more likely to emphasise
theme of protest. This interpretation is supported by the fact that women’s suicides
tended to be more carefully planned. But only in rare cases—such those of Doreen
Mathonsi who took an overdose of medical drugs—can we see women’s suicides as
a desperate plea for sympathy and support (Littlewood and Lipsedge 1987). In the
clear majority of cases, the narrators saw women’s suicides as ‘protests’ that were
aimed at dramatising the culpability of domineering parents, neglectful boyfriends,
disrespectful affines, and abusive husbands. The methods of suicide that women
deployed were highly visible and involved maximal ‘expressive violence’ (E. Marx
1976). Seven women burnt themselves in the most gruesome manner, and one
swallowed pieces of glass. Moreover, women tended to commit suicide in public
spaces. They generally burnt themselves in their yards, and often hanged themselves
in the living rooms, rather than bedrooms, of their homes.
My informants told me how, in a number of cases, women vocally allocated
blame before committing suicide. Before Rina Ngobeni burnt herself, she reportedly
asked her sister to look after her baby, and said, ‘Her father does not want her [the
baby]. He is a polygynist who fucks everywhere’. Maureen Ngobeni lived with a
security guard, employed by the Tintswalo hospital. In 1995, she confronted him in
public, accused him of speaking to other women at the gate, and complained
vehemently that he did not love her anymore. After the argument Maureen became
sulky, asked R10 from her mother and bought paraffin. Maureen then burnt herself
near the hospital gate. Villagers could see Maureen burning from far afield. Ester
Segodi swallowed glass and was found lying on the veranda of her employer’s
home—with blood running from her mouth.
Villagers spoke about these suicides for months and these discussions provoked
intense contestation and debate. Witnesses carefully scrutinised all information
pertaining to each suicide, particularly those that seemed incomprehensible, for
evidence of bewitchment by envious kin and neighbours (Niehaus et al. 2001). For
example, Johannes Mathonsi—whose daughter took an overdose of sleeping tablets
blame from himself. Johannes suggested that his daughter’s lover might have poured
love potion (korobela) into her food. But these excuses were not always accepted.
There were also other grounds for contesting men’s culpability for women’s
suicides. A neighbour told me of the conversation in his car when he took Ennie
Mashego and her affines to hospital after she had drunk poison. On the way, her
husband’s cousin scolded her:
How can you do such a thing? It is a scandal. Those things [extramarital
affairs] have been there since time immemorial. Where on earth can you find
an honest man? If you do not want to stay with our cousin you should go.
Ennie’s own mother also reprimanded her and said that she should rather
communicate her problems. ‘Look. Your father has three wives. How can you kill
yourself for a man?’
342 Cult Med Psychiatry (2012) 36:327–347
But some of the most dramatic suicides did expose the unreasonableness of the
social situations that others expected women to endure, and did mobilise public
opinion against those whom had wronged the suicide victims. In some cases, the
agnates of the victim sought to retaliate. After a woman burnt herself to death in
Maviljan, her agnates publicly accused her husband of being irresponsible. They
required him to settle all outstanding bridewealth debts, and to pay all funeral
expenses. The husband was so humiliated that merely a week after the funeral, he
too committed suicide.
These discussions were sometimes moments of deep, critical reflection, on the
nature of gender constructs, and on the morality of masculine domination.
Neighbours and kin of women suicide victims often commented extremely
negatively on men who mistreated their wives. One man told me:
Our culture is very oppressive against women. The old people say that if you
cheat your wife you must do it discreetly… But if your wife cheats you, you
must divorce her. That woman committed suicide because she loved her
husband very much.
These discussions might even question whether domination is worthwhile.
In his classical study, Suicide, Durkheim (1951, p. 51) writes that ‘each society is
predisposed to contribute a definite quota of voluntary deaths’. Carstens (2000)
finds this general insight more fruitful than his well-known taxonomical divisions
between ‘altruistic’, ‘anomic’, ‘egotistic’ and ‘fatalistic’ suicides. He suggests that
extremely high incidence of suicide amongst aboriginal people in Canada might
well be a manifest and latent function of confinement to Native Reserves. Not only
do aboriginal people exert little control over their own destinies, but they
experience the Reserves as a ‘closed system of human interaction’ marked by
‘socio-economic incompleteness’ (Carstens 2000). As in the Canadian Native
Reserves, a situation of social, political, and economic marginalisation in South
Africa’s former Bantustan areas might well be conducive to high rates of suicide.
Durkheim’s focus on the individual’s integration into social concerns also
illuminates some of the individual cases presented in this article, including the
experiences of suicide victims who do not belong, find themselves excluded, and
divorced from valued gender roles.
Yet, in understanding narratives of suicide in Bushbuckridge, it is essential that
we transcend Durkheim’s analytical insights. Durkheim’s analysis of suicide tends
to valorise the sense of community, and minimise social differences and conflicts
such as those evident in gendered power relations (Hollan 1990). Residents of
places such as the Canadian Reserves and former South African Bantustans have not
experienced the impact of broader forces uniformly. Such differences are most
clearly apparent in the different proclivities of men and women to commit suicide.
An emphasis on structures and ideologies of masculine domination, and on what
Cult Med Psychiatry (2012) 36:327–347 343
K. Marx (1999/1864) called ‘the tyranny of family relationships’ is crucial for
greater understanding of suicide in places such as Bushbuckridge.
But we are left with an unanswered question, as to why ideologies that privilege
men lead to a situation in which significantly more men than women commit
suicide. I have suggested that Moore’s (1994) theory that violence results from the
thwarting of the investments by individuals in gender identities, and Bourdieu’s
(2001) concept of symbolic violence can lead us from this theoretical impasse.
Bourdieu (2001) insists that masculine domination also inflicts symbolic violence
on men—in so far as individual men are also victims of dominant representations. In
certain ways, he argues, male privilege is a trap. Through the hard labour of
socialisation men learn the pursuit and exercise of domination. There is a permanent
tension to assert manliness in all circumstances, and the point of honour presents
itself as a system of demands that are in many cases inaccessible (2000: pp. 48–50).
Men experience the demonstration of sexual and reproductive capacity, and of
violence, and the pursuit of glory in the public sphere almost as a sacred duty. But
the tests of masculinity, and the fear of being excluded from the realm of men, are
also a source of immense vulnerability. Bourdieu (2001) argues that like honour,
men feel shame before others. In an earlier essay, Gilmore too argued that the tests
of masculinity imply humiliating failure. Its vindication is doubtful, resting on rigid
codes of decisive action in many spheres of life: as husband, father, lover, provider
warrior. A restrictive status, there are always men who fail the test. They are the
negative examples, the effete men, the men-who-are-nomen, held up scornfully to
inspire conformity to this glorious ideal (Gilmore 1990, p. 17). In Bushbuckridge,
men perceived the tests of masculinity as deadly serious business. Although
narratives about suicides of men do contain an element of protest, they are more
likely to emphasise the theme of escape from humiliating situations of failure
(Baumeister 1990, Shneidman 1993).
Bourdieu (2001) argues that in addition to the physical violence that women
experience as the objects of male abuse, women suffer symbolic violence. This
occurs when women apply the categories of the dominant to their own point of
view, and depreciate or denigrate themselves. Women often internalise their own
subordination, and view marriage as the prime means of acquiring social position. In
Bushbuckridge, women’s suicides, like those of men, constitute a form of escape,
but such escape is constructed as an act of protest against violent patriarchy.8
In theoretical terms, we can argue that whereas men’s suicides were more likely
to pertain to problems about the ‘individual’ aspects of their masculine personhood,
women’s suicides fore-grounded problematic ‘relational’ (dividual) aspects of
feminine personhood (Lipuma 1998, p. 16). Men’s concerns centred on the
performance of autonomy and authority, and men frequently blamed themselves for
their failures to sustain dominance. Women’s concerns were more about their
position within a wider set of social relationships, and women often blamed others
8Stølen (1996) applies the concept ‘hegemony’ to masculine dominance in rural Argentina, and shows
how gender inequalities have been effectively ‘naturalised’. As in rural Argentina women of the lowveld
seem to have idealised love, marriage and motherhood.
344 Cult Med Psychiatry (2012) 36:327–347
for their misery. Indeed, these cases show how women perceived of their own well
being, dignity, status and financial survival as centred upon conjugal relations.
But even in the case of suicide, we need to recognise limitations of Bourdieu’s
theory of habitus (Farnell 2000). Bourdieu argues that below the level of
consciousness matrixes of perception and dispositions, deeply embodied in practice,
perpetuate masculine domination. This may well be true of suicidal behaviour. For
example, Kral and Johnson (1996) argue that suicide is not the result of deliberative
thinking. They locate the act of suicide at the level of the cognitive unconscious that
intuitively organises experience and directs behaviour. However, it is essential that
we transcend this focus on habitual behaviour, and pay equal attention to the
narrative reconstructions of suicide. Within Bushbuckridge particular suicides
provoked conscious reflexivity about gendered constructs, serious discussions that
could potentially pave the way towards a more equitable future.
Eric Thobela for the latters’ help during fieldwork, and also Rob Gordon, Michael Kral, Jean La Fontaine,
Hal Scheffler, James Staples and Tom Widger for their critical comments and support.
The author thanks his field assistants Eliazaar Mohlala, the late Kally Shokane, and
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