Despite the fact that a safe society is good for business, and the economy as a whole, companies hesitate to get involved in addressing violence. Not surprising, since murder, robbery, domestic violence and child abuse are such difficult issues to engage, especially for organisations that do not have the necessary expertise to effectively navigate this murky terrain.
In this article, gang intervention specialist and executive director of the Safety Lab, Nathanial Roloff, and PhD psychologist and director of Restore Reconnect Rebuild (R-Cubed), Lane Benjamin, provide a situational analysis of violence and trauma as it relates to business in South Africa, as well as recommendations for how companies can help to address violence by reimagining workplace culture, establishing cross-sector partnerships, and prudently investing in community-based organisations and developmental initiatives.
Most South Africans have experienced a lack of safety and violence. According to 2015 findings by the South African Centre for the Study of Violence and Reconciliation, the country has one of the highest rates of violence against women on the continent and a rate of five times the global average. National annual crime statistics for the 2018/19 financial year detailed increases in murder by 3.4%, to 21 022, and reported sexual offences by 4.6%, to 52 420. Robbery with aggravating circumstances – including hijackings, cash-in-transit robberies and robberies at commercial and residential properties – increased by 1.2%, to 140 032 cases.
The highest number of murder cases were reported in Nyanga, Delft, Khayelitsha, Philippi East, Harare and Gugulethu in the Western Cape; Inanda, Umlazi and Plessislaer in KwaZulu-Natal; and Mthatha in the Eastern Cape. It is no coincidence that these communities are under-resourced in terms of policing and the most basic social services such as adequate street lighting. It is also worth noting that these are the same communities in which many low-wage employees and service providers reside. Even if business leaders are not directly exposed to violence, the fact that so many of their employees and colleagues are, should compel them to get involved.
Furthermore, consistent exposure to violence and fear creates an anxious workforce that often feels powerless and unmotivated, ultimately slowing productivity. Multiple studies have correlated high violence with gross macro and micro economic output, placing business in a central position for violence intervention.
South Africa’s pervasive trauma
Trauma is misunderstood and the link between individual and collective trauma – in addition to the resultant antisocial behaviour – denied. People adapt quickly to survive in dangerous environments, but the impact of trauma is insidious. Exposure to and experiences of violence from childhood changes how adults perceive stress and, therefore, influences how they respond to potential perceived threats. Adverse childhood experiences (ACE) are traumatic events or toxic stress experiences that have been scientifically associated with poor work quality, low productivity, increased absenteeism, decreased morale, substance abuse, financial problems, and a host of physiological illnesses such as cardiac and pulmonary diseases, diabetes, chronic pain, depression and suicidei. Needless to say, ACEs often have significant negative impact on business.
Consider the example of one low-income urban community in the Western Cape. A 2013 studyii of 617 12- to 15-year-olds’ exposure to violence in this community found that:
- 99% had witnessed community violence; 40% had been directly threatened or assaulted
- 77% had witnessed domestic violence; 58% had been directly victimised at home
- 93% had experienced more than one type of violence, while over 50% had experienced/been exposed to four or more types of violence.
What do such shocking statistics mean for the future workforce of South Africa?
How can business respond?
Trauma and violence may be high-risk fields to engage with when there are so many other priorities in South Africa. Unfortunately, violence generates an intergenerational cycle of harm that affects all sectors of society. Without anti-violence interventions, South African communities that suffer with high levels of violence and trauma will continuously struggle to uplift themselves, perpetuating traumatised individuals that make up the collective workforce.
1. Adopting a trauma – informed workplace culture
The responsibility of caring for individuals who are suffering from trauma – be it unresolved childhood trauma or current exposure to violence and threat – does not belong solely to the mental health sector.
Businesses spend large amounts of money on health-related interventions as a result of toxic stress and also suffer financial losses as a consequence of low productivity and absenteeism. Often, these interventions have low to no lasting impact since the historical and root issues are not addressed or resolved.
A trauma-informed approach requires companies to invest in their people in order to maintain a healthy and productive workforce, rather than solely focusing on the goals that need to be attained in order to reach a profit margin. It goes beyond wellness interventions, to address how an organisation understands stress and trauma, and how it engages with employees on a day-to-day basis. For example, companies can engage with employees about their experiences of travelling to and from work, and living in their respective communities, in order to begin to understand some of their stress and trauma-inducing lived realities and related concerns. Implementing a trauma-informed approach means that the organisation’s practice and policies are aligned with the understanding of trauma. The health of relationships among staff are influenced by how well a business understands, sees and listens to, and is able to provide psychological safety for its staffiii.
There is a wealth of research to support the notion that, in order for businesses to be successful in the long term, the focus needs to be on the wellbeing of peopleiv. Helping people to make the connection between their past and present trauma and current wellbeing is critical to that process. Although employee needs and company responses vary depending on the institution and the communities from which it employs, R-Cubed follows a process that includes three steps that require some degree of cyclical reflection and evolution:
- Diagnose – Analysis of the organisation through a trauma-informed lens in order to determine systems and behaviours that fail to respond to the pervasive impacts of violence.
- Intervene – The training process in which the key principles of trauma-informed business are explored and developed. These key principles include empathic engagement (by management); creating connection; self-regulation and stress management; shifting power and promoting collaborative practice within the business.
- Sustain (ensure systemic change) – Mentoring and coaching provided to leaders within the business to support action and reflection on the trauma- informed process.
Through this approach, companies can support healthier, more loyal and committed employees which, in turn, leads to healthier and more efficient places of work. Fostering a sense of belonging, empowerment, inclusion and care – often absent in our company structures – is cost-effective and critical in responding to the continued inequalities that plague South Africa.
2. Establishing cross-sector partnerships
Business has the potential to lead the way in generating safety for all, whether there is an immediate or direct impact on their employees and customer base or not. Internationally, the projects most successful at reducing overall murder rates (notwithstanding massive national GDP growth) arise from business partnerships. Where these larger partnerships are elusive, business can support smaller initiatives driven by non-profit organisations (NPOs) that aim for economic inclusion for the most marginalised.
Chicago, USA – Business-led urban partnership
Chicago businesses collaborated to uplift communities that were suffering significant gang violence. A key outcome was the enhanced ability of the police to respond to and prevent violence, increase surveillance and build community relationships. Many of the large companies operating in Chicago elected to fund technology, including securing additional cameras, behaviour pattern recognition and crime radar prediction software, and technology that immediately notifies the police of indicators of criminal activity such as gunshots. The Chicago police force is now cutting-edge in its violence prediction and reaction time and as a result has successfully reduced violence in the most violent neighbourhoods.v
Juarez, Mexico – Cross-sector partnership
Juarez was once known as the deadliest city in the worldvi – a drug cartel hotbed for murder, political assassinations and gang violence. National, state and local government, the non-profit sector and business came together to generate a holistic response, inclusive of many of the drivers of violence and crime. This approach attempted to mitigate the effects of cyclical violence by funding various youth development programmesvii.
Santa Teresa, Venezuela – Business come conscious
The Santa Teresa Rum Distillery in the valley of Aragua grew despondent at government’s failure to respond to crime and started to include youth in a change-making strategy. It began with the transformative approach of hiring a group of gangsters found guilty of robbing the distillery. By creating employment and providing entrepreneurial training and economic inclusion programmes for the community, ‘Project Alcatraz’ was able to generate substantial change on a local scale that is now being replicated in other cities throughout Latin Americaviii.
Los Angeles, USA – Non-profit wins private sector support
Homeboys Industries, started as a tattoo removal project by a non-profit in Los Angeles, attracted corporate support that enabled gang members to transform their lives. What began with a passionate priest helping members of his community transition out of gangs grew into a successful bakery. Creating gainful and regular employment within a moderately low-skill economy, providing economic stability, and developing new education and mainstreaming opportunities proved to be the primary need for many seeking a way out of a criminal lifestyleix.
3. Supporting non-profit innovation, research and development
Companies that invest in NPOs that specialise in violence and crime reduction can use their research and development skills to fill gaps in those NPOs. Often, the most effective NPOs lack the capacity or resources to effectively evaluate and review their outcomes. Additionally, there is little opportunity for critical thinking about interventions or reflective innovation. If the business sector focused on supporting the research and development process within the non- profit sector, more innovative and effective projects could be established with direct trauma-informed and violence-reduction outcomes.
Youth self-identify eight reasons why they choose to join gangs and enter a life of crime. These factors can be reverse- engineered to help companies, NPOs and government determine a pathway and strategy to reduce the prevalence of gangs, and violence in general. The eight reasons established by various research agencies across the world are: belonging, goods, safety, revenge, boredom, identity, mastery and economyx. These reasons mirror Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs in many ways and, for far too many young people in South Africa, the only way to solve these problems on a realisable timeline is to join a gang. It offers them immediate access to security, food, goods, money, status, identity and purpose.
Violence in Cape Town is highly correlated with unemployment. Research conducted by the Safety Lab found the near-certain correlation that, if a person has lived in a community with relatively high unemployment, they have experienced violence in both direct and indirect ways. However, in Johannesburg, the highest correlation under the same study was between education and violence. This shows that not all interventions apply equally across areas. Similarly, in other urban centres around South Africa, median income had the highest correlation with violence. Whether it be education, income, employment or another factor, these drivers are based on opportunity and equality, or the lack thereof.
Perhaps most interestingly, studies of various economic interventions around the world suggest that the best-placed investment often lies with womenxi. Traditional family roles in many low- income communities place women at the heart of the family’s wellbeing. This tends to translate to better spending and greater return on investment, per rand. So, one of the best-placed innovations would be finding ways for women to engage in the greater economic development of the community, disrupting some of the negative behaviour chains stemming from substance abuse, misspending, lending and direct gender-based abuse that occurs due to the distribution of money.
In essence, the priority for a funder to make an impact on violence without having to directly address the high-risk elements would be to determine the strengths of the current intervention; marry that with greater knowledge of the community and a geographic understanding of where the problem is most significant; place a deliberate and targeted intervention within that area in order to disrupt the driving forces; and, finally, provide oversight, monitoring and evaluation in order to determine success as well as diagnose future opportunities for investment and intervention.
Without critical evaluation and verification, millions are wasted on ineffective and inactive projects.
High risk, but high reward for resilient funders
Anti-violence work is often hard to sell to business. It is challenging and seemingly fraught with risk. However, if the primary desire is to realise economic growth and greater equality then this work is imperative. One of South Africa’s greatest inhibitors to development is the myriad forms of violence plaguing the working class, particularly in urban centres. Gang, youth, domestic, gender-based, social and political violence serve to hinder otherwise law-abiding citizens from basic roles and responsibilities in society. The frequency and pervasiveness of trauma and violence in our society restrains far too many people from participation and productivity.
Too often, expectations of resilience are placed on the communities who are suffering. In a very different way, what is needed is resilience of funders, supporters, government and business in the task of supporting long-term, gradual, positive change toward the societies we want. No intervention will quickly shift the entire national framework of violence. A broad mesh of networks will be required over time to have significant effect on the issue.
By investing first in supporting staff through trauma-informed practices, the work environment can become a place where violence is addressed. Businesses are further encouraged to invest in non- profit programmes with direct outcomes that mitigate the drivers of violence. Finally, where possible, reframing business as a citizen of South Africa requires thoughtful and respectful inclusion of marginalised communities. These practices would go a long way in contributing to uplifting individuals and communities to the benefit of all.
- Anda, R. and Felitti, V. (2004). Childhood Abuse, Household Dysfunction, and Indicators of Impaired Adult Worker Performance. The Permanente Journal, 8(1).
- Kaminer, D., du Plessis, B., Hardy, A. and Benjamin, A. (2013). Exposure to violence across multiple sites among young South African adolescents. Peace and Conflict: Journal of Peace Psychology, 19(2), pp.112-124.
- Ronnie, L. (2018). Tackling mental health in the workplace. https://www.news.uct.ac.za/article/-2018-05-17-tackling-mental-health-in-the- workplace
- Ochoa, P., Lepeley, M. T. and Essens, P. (2018). Wellbeing for Sustainability in the Global Workplace. Routledge.
- Smartcitiesdive.com (2019). Katie Pyzyk | Smart Cities Dive. https://www.smartcitiesdive.com/users/kpyzyk/
- Valencia, N. and Chacon, A. (2019). Juarez shedding violent image, statistics show https://edition.cnn.com/2013/01/05/world/americas/mexico-juarez-killings-drop/
- Muggah, R., Szabo de Carvalho, I., Alvarado, N., Marmolejo, L. and Wang, R. (2016). Making Cities Safer: Citizen Security Innovations in Latin America. Igarape Institute, Strategic Paper 20.
- Npr.org. (2019). In Venezuela, A Rum-Maker Gives Gang Members A Way Out – Via Rugby. https://www.npr.org/2019/09/01/738891707/in-venezuela-a-rum-maker- gives-gang-members-a-way-out-via-rugby
- Dickerson, J. (2010). ‘Nothing Stops a Bullet Like a Job’: Homeboy Industries and Restorative Justice. SSRN Electronic Journal.
- Dowdney, L. (2019). Neither War nor Peace. International comparisons of children and youth in organised armed violence. https://resourcecentre.savethechildren.net/node/5014/pdf/5014.pdf
- Cuberes, D., & Teignier, M. (2016). Aggregate Effects of Gender Gaps in the Labor Market: A Quantitative Estimate. Journal of Human Capital, 10(1), 1–32. https://doi.org/10.1086/683847 and Ferrant, G. and A. Kolev (2016), Does gender discrimination in social institutions matter for long-term growth?: Cross-country evidence. OECD Development Centre Working Papers, No. 330, OECD Publishing, Paris, https://doi.org/10.1787/5jm2hz8dgls6-en