Perpetrators lack empathy for others

The recent spate of killings of women and girls has once again shocked our nation.

Women and some men are saying enough is enough and have gone out on city-wide organised marches and protests.

Others have started social media campaigns including #AmINext and #NotInMyName in solidarity with the victims and their condemning of these heinous criminal acts. It is worrying and disturbing that instead of these kinds of crimes decreasing since democratic governance and with more people being educated (although on a small scale comparatively), they are rapidly escalating.

I asked myself why is this the case. Is it that patriarchy and the disdain of women and their bodies are still very much stuck in the mindsets of men in this country?

Is the dehumanising legacy of apartheid, with the “other” continuing to haunt our minds, souls and communities? Is it that these perpetrators were brought up in very harsh, cruel and violent family environments and that they now have identified with the aggressor and reenact this with other vulnerable individuals, more specifically women?

Is it that their sexual impulses are running rampant due to having been punished, condemned and/or shamed while growing up and therefore they have to act this out in the most heinous manner as serial killers often do?

Might it be that they have narcissistic/sociopathic tendencies and lack remorse for others and only care about fulfilling their perverted fantasies and wishes without the care for the impact on others.

I don’t know and wish I could just say it’s either this or it’s that. But more and more I am thinking, it’s always a combination of factors.

We are all overdetermined, as Sigmund Freud once stated. This means that our psyches, mental life and behaviour are influenced and shaped by a myriad internal and external factors, more especially, every minute of interaction with those around us from birth onward. In my view, our early years and childhood environments are profoundly instrumental in shaping our character and identity.

There are many reasons why people act violently or aggressively.

However, those, usually men, who so viciously attack, rape and brutally murder women, reflect an individual with a very disturbed mind who lacks empathy and has a propensity towards destructive behaviour. Additionally, according to this character formation, usually narcissistic/sociopathic, they are very egocentric and self-indulgent, making sure they get what they want from others, seeing others only as dehumanised objects that exist to fulfil their needs and fantasies, and to be discarded, like nothing, once these are met.

In a previous column, I have written about the narcissistic personality type as well as the crossover between this and the antisocial personality type. What they have in common is a total lack of empathy or concern for others. They are often described as cold, manipulative, heartless and aggressive, as well as charming, intelligent and calculating. Many of them may not become murderers, but their intentions are always to manipulate and use others for their benefit.

The psychopathic narcissist takes this to the extreme. With their propensity to exploit others, their lack of empathy and their sexually motivated sadistic tendencies, it can become common practice for them to rape, mutilate and kill, simply to feel powerful, in control and sexually aroused. Their perverse enactments are often reenactments of earlier conditions in their lives where they were abused and emotionally deprived or exploited by significant others in their formative years.

Another character trait of these people is extreme envy of others as well as being easily triggered into a narcissistic rage if they feel hurt, shamed or exposed as inadequate.

Exploring the history of South African men who have killed women or their partners highlights a web of inter-related circumstances and experiences which contributed to their ability to murder a partner. Most are men who could have been regarded as “violent men” before they killed.

However, their pathway to violence seemed to have started with profoundly unhappy and disturbed childhoods, characterised by parental death, harsh discipline from different caregivers, emotionally detached parents, and absent fathers. These experiences are described as having indelibly marked their sense of self and others. Their feelings of parental abandonment and betrayal resulted in a deep sense of mistrust of others, insecurity, lack of guilt and empathy, and low self-esteem.

These feelings play out in many ways as they search for love, admiration and respect in relationships with others. This, together with the social reality of their lives, which for many are set in a context of poverty, draws them to violent, anti-social and criminal activities in search of control, respect and value. On the other hand, women in South Africa are socialised to see men as objects of love, respect and resources as well as danger.

Most women are socialised to expect men to control them and justify men’s acts of control and punishment as demonstrations of love. In a context of poverty, where the provider role is emphasised as part of successful masculinity, many men and women see relationships as a means of economic survival and with this control over women’s minds and bodies.

Moreover, many caregivers socialise their boys to be tough and unemotional, with lack of love and affection towards them but at the same time often spoiling them with material things and disciplining them harshly and cruelly. This is a recipe for disaster regarding how these boys engage with themselves and others, especially with women as they become men, re-enacting the ways in which they were treated as children and repeating the abuse they grew up with.

One of the main solutions needs to be a responsive way in parenting our children from birth, with love, safety, boundaries and guidance and without cruelty, coldness and lack of loving attunement to their developing needs. As the well-known saying goes “the hand that rocks the cradle, rules the world”. For more information on optimal supportive parenting, contact The Parent Centre in Wynberg at 021 762 0116 or Family and Marriage Society of SA (FAMSA) in Observatory at 021 447 7951.

Carin-Lee Masters is a clinical psychologist. Write to her at or send a WhatsApp message or SMS to 082 264 7774.