Relationship between symbolic violence and overt violence in hate incidents in South Africa

  • Tanya Pieterse
  • Vanessa Stratford
  • Juan A. Nel
Keywords: symbolic violence, hate incidents, bias, message crimes, violence, prevention


The study reported here explored the relationship between symbolic violence and overt violence through the descriptions of hate incidents experienced in South Africa. Data were collected during a five-year longitudinal study conducted under the auspices of the Hate Crimes Working Group, using its Hate and Bias Monitoring Form and an accompanying user guide. Thematic analysis was used to create categories, themes and interpretations of hate incidents. Six primary themes emerged: i) the victim is less than human or like an animal; ii) humiliation of the victim; iii) use of extreme overkill or destruction; iv) the victim is to blame; v) messages conveyed by hate incidents; and vi) intentional unfair discrimination. These themes are discussed in relation to the existing body of literature on symbolic violence. We argue that there is a mutually reinforcing relationship between symbolic violence and overt violence in hate victimisation. Symbolic violence creates a society in which hate victimisation of certain vulnerable groups becomes socially acceptable by constructing the circumstances in which overt violence could take place. Overt violence occurs when symbolic violence is no longer effective in controlling vulnerable groups, with offenders blatantly resorting to reinforce power differences between themselves and their victims. Overt violence reinforces symbolic violence by sending a message to victims directly, as well as to their larger communities, in terms of their undesirability, not belonging, and being third-class citizens. Effective violence prevention has to take this relationship into account, especially as South Africa grapples with related legislative and policy responses.

Keywords: symbolic violence, hate incidents, bias; message crimes, violence, prevention


Journal Identifiers

eISSN: 1728-774X