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Absence of Direct Violence does not Mean Absence of Violence

Updated: Aug 3, 2020

The word peace is used in everyday language, especially in the African context were direct violence erupts almost on a daily basis. South Africa for instance has become an arena of violence in recent months, from gang violence in the Cape Flats, Xenophobic attacks and targeted violence against women.

There have been calls by many sections of the population for “peace”, but what exactly is peace, what does it entail and what does it look like?

The common belief is that “Peace is the absence of violence.” This therefore means that what violence is, peace is not and vice versa. Peace and violence are linked and therefore in order to understand what peace is, we think it’s important to understand what violence is; because the absence of violence is peace.

What is Violence

John Galtung (1969), who is considered a guru in peace research, argues that “Violence is defined as the cause of the difference between the potential and the actual, between what could have been and what is.” In essence violence is that which increases the distance between the potential and the actual.

To simplify this concept, if a person died from cholera in the eighteenth century it would be hard to conceive of this as violence since it might have been quite unavoidable, but if he dies from it today, despite all the medical resources in the world, then violence is present according to this definition. Thus, when the actual is avoidable, violence is present. In other words where death, discrimination, or marginalisation is avoidable and yet it is present, violence is present.

Direct Violence

Direct violence is the most overt type of violence. This type of violence manifests itself in visible physical or bodily harm. The end result of this violence is usually death or bodily injury. Most people think that the absence of this type of violence is peace, however violence manifests itself in different forms.

Indirect Violence

This is where insight and resources are monopolised by a group or class and used for their own purposes. The result is that some people have access to a lot, while others have access to a little. This is also known as inequality, injustice and structural violence. Structural violence is more violent than direct violence. One can also call this type of violence latent violence, because it’s hidden and systemic. For example: ageism, classism, elitism, nationalism, racism, and sexism are all forms of structural violence.

Psychological Violence

Psychological violence works in the realm of the mind. It is propagated by ideologies that seek to repress and marginalise certain individuals of society. This type of violence manifests itself in everyday language. This shows that violence not only leaves a mark on the human body but on the mind and the spirit of a person.

For example: when a young girl is told that “women can’t lead a country because they are too emotional”, and therefore she should not even entertain the thought of becoming a leader.

Cultural Violence

Cultural violence is any aspect of a culture that can be used to legitimize violence. It is the symbolic sphere of our existence- exemplified by religion, ideology (patriarchy), language, art, empirical science and formal science that can be used to justify or legitimize direct or structural violence. For example: it is alright to murder on behalf of one’s country, but not on behalf of yourself.


When we say that peace is the absence of violence, it is not only direct violence that we are advocating against. The mere fact that a country is not at war does not mean it is peaceful. Recent sparks of violence against women in South Africa, and xenophobic attacks are testament to the fact that our society is not peaceful. This lack of peace is a result of structural violence as well as cultural violence inherent in the South African societal fabric.

It is important to note that indirect violence gives birth to direct violence, creating a negative peace status, where countries and society is always at the verge of conflict. As everyday activists it is our responsibility to advocate for a total elimination of all types of violence. We should join hands and advocate for an extended concept of peace, which is positive, challenges all types of violence and has its foundation in equality, unity and human rights.

The Extended Concepts of Violence and Peace


Johan Galtung, Violence, Peace, and Peace Research, Journal of Peace Research, Vol. 6, No. 3 (1969), pp. 167-191.

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