Ag in Africa

26 February, 2007

Fear and Loathing in South Africa

Filed under: Development worker, johannesburg, Peace, south africa — Ag @ 9:57 pm

(This post is best read whilst listening to ‘In the Ghetto’ by Candi Statton ((or Elvis if you must)). It gives the right context.)

I know that the most recent posts below have been light-and-fluffy. However, last weekend was a bored-and-lonely weekend. Before I came here, I scheduled several of these into my year, but have been fortunate enough to miss most of them. The (only) good thing about a bored-and-lonely weekend is that it gives me time to think and write.

I’ve wanted to have a stab at crime in SA for a long time, so this is going to be a long-and-serious post. In SA, any discussion about crime is a discussion about violence. This is a violent society. A couple of weeks ago I did a training course on facilitating workshops in women’s prisons. As well as hearing some first-hand nauseating stories of life in the slammer, I was told two interesting things about crime:

1. People who commit crimes – don’t we all? – ok, proper crimes, usually have common risk factors. These include: being victims of abuse, poverty, family breakdown, lack of economic opportunities (ie, decent jobs), low self-esteem, lack of education, isolation, etc … well, it doesn’t take a bleedin’ genius to work that out. One surprising factor is that coming from a highly patriarchal society (ie, where men are men and don’t do the dusting) is another indicator. South Africa has all of these risk factors in abundance.

2. Whereas yer average female crim in the UK or USA is most likely to be in prison for an economic (eg, non-violent theft, fraud) or narcotics related crime, yer average female crim in SA is likely to be in prison for a violent crime. Given that women are significantly less violent than men, this gives an indicator of how violent SA is.

The BBC has reported that South Africa is one of the most dangerous countries in the world – only Iraq and Colombia are more dangerous. (It would be wonderfully satisfying to blame the USA for all three, but South Africa has to sit on our British / Dutch consciences.) But the really weird thing about crime here is that people seem to be almost wedded to it, like a bad marriage; like the British seem to revel in crap weather. It’s not good, no-one likes it, but there’s something almost definitively-nationally-symbolic about it. Just like I can talk to my neighbour over the fence back home about the weather, I can always get small-talk over the electrified-razor-wire here about crime.

So, after that lengthy introduction, here’s my take on why crime is a national past-time: apartheid, Fear and wealth disparity. You can stop reading here if you’re not interested in the arguments.

Firstly, sorry, but I’ll shoot myself next time someone tells me that this is the New South Africa – democracy and all that. For me, apartheid is a major element when looking at causes of crime. The system that institutionally made the vast majority (85%) of the population believe they just weren’t good enough. It engendered distrust. It’s still in the infrastructure, and in the psyche of the nation. There’s still very little voluntary interaction between differently coloured people. Recent stats from the Institute for Justice and Reconciliation suggest that informal interaction between South Africans of different colours is actually reducing(1). (Damn, I’ve resorted to attributing. I don’t like the coldness of the academic approach, as if this is all about intellectual argument and not about humanity, love and speaking-my-truth. I seem to be stuck between academia and Quakerism. A sop and a vague place.) Yes, this is a resurgent nation – incredible economic growth, the most radical and liberal constitution in the world. Fantastic and exciting. But black people are still relatively poor (often very poor) and live mostly in townships. White people are still rich and live in the best bits of town. Here’s a quote from the Institute for Security Studies(2):

“Culture of violence

Some explanations for the high rate of violent crime refer to South Africa’s political history, suggesting that families suffered from ‘institutional violence’ for decades through the disruption of their lives by mass removals and migrant labour policies of apartheid. Political violence compounded this disruption of family life. The resultant weakening of the family unit and thus parental control over children may prompt criminal behaviour among the youth.

Moreover, while the liberation movements’ strategy of ungovernability was theoretically directed against the apartheid state, it had other destructive effects. In the process of destabilising black local government, leading violent campaigns against black policemen, and urging a people’s war which involved the youth in particular, massive violence was unleashed in black communities which bred a culture of violent lawlessness and a distrust of authority[…] Since 1994, little has been done to reverse these tendencies and to draw young South Africans in particular back into a society governed by the rule of law.

‘Culture of violence’ theories similarly argue that the effects of apartheid coupled with years of political violence and the continued exposure to violence in the home and in the neighbourhood have produced a destructive culture which manifests itself in what the Nedcor Project on Crime, Violence and Investment called ‘murderous intolerance’[…] It also means that South Africans quickly resort to violence as a means of solving conflicts — whether in the domestic, social or work environment.”

Fear was a very effective instrument of apartheid. (I’m continually surprised at how effective apartheid was. It wasn’t just in the infrastructure of the country, it was very effectively bred in the national psychology. If only they’d spent their energies on something constructive…) There’s a perception that this intense Fear is a recent phenomenon. However, I’ve recently read, “Cry, the Beloved Country” and it’s clear that white people accepted as early as the 1940s that Fear was the price they had to pay for their extreme wealth. The importance of Fear in feeding crime can’t be underestimated in my opinion. The Institute of Justice and Reconciliation explains this much better than I can(3):

“The impact of South Africa’s high crime levels and the brutal nature thereof goes beyond the material loss or physical scars of victims. The fact that virtually everybody knows somebody that has had a harrowing experience, creates the fear of being next in line, and consequently also an inherent cautiousness towards interaction with fellow human beings. Given our historical division and the fact that the unknown is often the biggest source of fear, distrust frequently manifests itself in the way that we perceive racial groups other than our own. This is an impediment to the openness that is required for the meaningful engagement that is required in a divided society such as ours. An IJR manual entitled Learning to Live Together, elaborates on this point and identifies at least five ways in which crime can obstruct national reconciliation efforts. According to the manual, it “undermines public trust in nation-building; it creates more victims and more trauma; it reinforces apartheid segregation and socio-economic inequality; it entrenches racial prejudice and it undermines social stability and tolerance”. Simpson elaborates on this and suggests that violent crime in South Africa has become a “new vehicle for re-racialising and physically and emotionally re-dividing the ‘new’ South Africa”.”

An example of how Fear perpetuates violence is in civilian gun-ownership, which is very popular in SA. There are approximately 4 million legally owned guns, and a similar number of illegal guns is estimated. The theory is that people keep guns in order to protect themselves and their households, as a response to their Fear. However, huge numbers (thousands) of guns go missing every year, and many of these are subsequently used in illegal, violent crimes. Also, legal and illegal South African guns are frequently used in fatal domestic violence (yes, innocent women and kids), and householders are more likely to have their guns turned against them during a break-in than use them in self-defence.

So, it’s a very very vicious circle: Fear perpetuates Violence perpetuates Fear. It’s been quite difficult not to get caught up in the Fear thing as people incessantly insist that I shouldn’t walk outside the gate of my house after dark; I shouldn’t drive into central Joburg. Doing so at night is asking for trouble. I shouldn’t drive into the townships at all unless I know exactly where I’m going. These warnings are given by both black and white South Africans. I have seen English people who are out here get caught up in this Fear, within just a few days of being here, and let it restrict them, even though they, like me, have not experienced a single incident. If we get sucked into it, we will contribute to it, and I came here to contribute in a positive way to this society, not to entrench mistrust.

As well as apartheid and Fear, the other factor that I believe is fundamental to explaining violent crime in SA is the huge disparity between rich and poor. Measured since 2000, just Bolivia, Haiti, Colombia and Brazil have wider gaps between the rich and poor. Only a very rich person with a stubbornly dormant conscience would argue that it’s a coincidence that most (all? I don’t know much about Bolivia) of these are violent societies.

For many South Africans, their chances of moving out of poverty are made virtually impossible by the high unemployment rate (around 28%) and the crap education they received under apartheid – while 65% of whites have a high-school or higher qualification, the figure for black people is only 14%. It’s still the case that only around 40% of schools are “fee-free”.(4)

The irony about the current high-profile of violent crime in South Africa is that the biggest noise seems to be coming from the white communities. But the white communities are by far the safest areas to live. Looking at South African Police Service stats (5), murders in nice white areas of Joburg (Linden – where I live, Parkview, Rosebank) ranged from 2 to 11 last year. Whereas, if you take even a fancy part of Soweto like Diepkloof, you find that there were 38 murders last year. Gauteng (the province which includes Joburg, Pretoria and Soweto) clocked up a total of 3,434. There’s some interesting writing about perceptions of crime in SA on the excellent Gautango blog, which is written by a couple of Americans who are currently living in Joburg.

There are other factors that are massively important, but I don’t want to make this post any longer than it already is. Briefly the ones that I would like to have said more about are

  • South Africa is a magnet for immigration from all over Africa.
  • the particular apartheid process of separating black men from their families in order to get them to work in industry and the long term consequences of this.
  • dissatisfaction with the slow rate of wealth redistribution.
  • domestic violence is rampant.
  • the police are not effective enough, particularly in the most vulnerable areas where they are most needed.
  • the prison service is only spending approx R110 on each prisoner a day, which doesn’t bode well for rehabilitation.
  • SA has a culture where a violent response to conflict is not considered unacceptable.

1. http://www.ijr.org.za/politicalanalysis/reconcbar/copy_of_sixthroundreportfinal/view
2 http://www.iss.co.za/Pubs/Papers/49/Paper49.html
3 http://www.ijr.org.za/politicalanalysis/reconcbar/copy_of_sixthroundreportfinal/view
4 http://www.southafrica.info/ess_info/sa_glance/education/education.htm
5 South African Police Service crime stats: http://www.saps.gov.za/statistics/reports/crimestats/2006/crime_stats.htm

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8 Comments »

  1. Well done for writing such a calm and reflective post about what has become a very emotive subject for all South Africans, including ex-pat ones like me. Tragically, I think it’s going to take a few generations for the iniquitous effects of apartheid to work themselves out. I appreciate that this could have been a much longer post because it’s a huge subject.

    Thanks also for the pointer to the Guatango blog. I’ve checked them out once or twice and must go back.

    Comment by charlotteotter — 26 February, 2007 @ 10:45 pm

  2. […] She’s just written a really great, non-emotive post on crime in my home country, aptly named Fear and Loathing in South Africa. Sometimes I think it takes an outsider (I don’t mean that pejoratively) to have a […]

    Pingback by May I Introduce You To …? « Charlotte’s Web — 27 February, 2007 @ 8:24 am

  3. Another brilliant post.

    Comment by Helen, Cape Town — 27 February, 2007 @ 1:02 pm

  4. It was great to read such an objective and calm piece on this subject. I’m English (from Somerset)married to a South African living outside Cape Town and it’s difficult to get an opinion unclouded by the big Fear factor. I agree that Fear is one of the major obstacles that the New SA has to deal with. I think if you can resist being drawn into it, as you have done, you have a much better chance of seeing clearly and healing and helping. Thanks for this great post and for bringing a measure of hope for the people here.

    Comment by Kit — 27 February, 2007 @ 8:46 pm

  5. Well said.

    Comment by Annie — 3 March, 2007 @ 7:23 pm

  6. My “Crime and Paranoia” post at http://gautango.wordpress.com didn’t attempt to explain why crime is so high in South Africa. I think I was saving that can of worms for a future post. But Sarah’s done a great job here. I wouldn’t have thought to think about fear itself as a contributor to crime, but I can see her logic.

    I would bring a slightly different perspective than the ISS folks to this idea of a “culture of violence.” I don’t like the term because I think it is often misread to mean that the problem lies in South African or African culture itself, which is not the case. I think what they’re referring to here is more simply captured in the fact that South Africa underwent a decades-long civil war. Low intensity warfare maybe, but warfare nonetheless. And any country that goes through that is going to see a spike in domestic violence and violent crime. War is traumatizing and brutalizing, and it teaches violence.

    There’s actually one more thing not mentioned above, which I think is crucial: police corruption. It’s a big problem here, with obvious impact on the effectiveness of anti-crime efforts.

    Comment by Lea — 8 March, 2007 @ 11:16 pm

  7. Hi Ag!

    I’m French and I’ve just discover you blog. It’s wonderful!!!!
    I don’t live in south Africa, I live in Paris and I have a great passion for this country. I totally agree with what you are saying in post about violence in south africa. When I heard journalist or some people which never been to Johannesburg or any part of south africa tell us that the country is very very dangerous, I used to say to myself: what they really know about this country?

    Excuse my english, as you see it’s not perfect

    Comment by Roti — 29 June, 2007 @ 6:20 pm

  8. I know this is an old blog but I’ve only just stumbled on it now.

    SO very well said.
    I am a South African living abroad and VERY homesick – returning home permanently next year. “Fear” has been something keeping me from coming home sooner.
    Being far away from SA it is very easy to be sucked into believing that it’s the scariest, worst place in the world! It seems as though every SA blog or website I stumble across is littered with angry and bitter comments written by South Africans- often Ex-South Africans talking about the crime problem in SA. Whilst we all have reason to be concerned, it’s the obsessive and often venomous nature of these comments that upsets me- I always thought of South Africans as positive and proactive!
    I sincerely hope that more people read blogs such as yours and are able to use their negative energy and turn it into something positive and proactive to help make SA even better.
    Thanks!

    Comment by Carolina — 30 December, 2007 @ 5:36 pm


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