by Frank Schnittger
Tue Nov 2nd, 2010 at 10:33:28 AM EST
I currently have the honour of staying with a South African Indian family near Durban and also of having some discussions with former anti-apartheid activists who are now quite prominent members of South African civil society. It's several years since my previous visit to South Africa, and first impressions can be misleading. I reserve the right to change my mind if further evidence warrants, but first impressions are that little has changed as far as the South African obsession at the level and severity of violence and crime being experienced by ordinary citizens is concerned.
This diary does not attempt a comparative analysis of crime statistics in South Africa and elsewhere. Internet and other data access is too limited to attempt such a study. Instead it is about the felt first hand experiences of a small non statistically significant sub sample of South African Society.
My hosts used to run a petrol station in a medium sized town but had to give it up when it was robbed, with violence, numerous times. They now run a very small car hire business. As I speak they are in the process of recovering a stolen car from the police pound. Although now still in perfect condition, my host's previous experience is that it will have been comprehensive stripped down before being released from police custody. Their son and daughter have both had their cars stolen at the point of a gun recently, as have several neighbours.
Their next door neighbour and closest friend - a popular 68 year old retired school teacher was brutally raped and murdered in her own home a couple of weeks ago. She had revealed the names of people who had been harrassing her to my hosts only a little time previously. Evidence at the scene appears to link those suspects to the murder but no DNA tests were conducted for reasons that are not clear to my hosts.
Another neighbour was assaulted and stabbed four times a week ago by four assailants as he was getting out of his car in the driveway of his home. He might have been killed had his 17 year old daughter not seen the assailants from the house and raised the alarm.
The son of their grand children's swimming teacher committed suicide a week ago after being bullied both outside school and on Facebook and Mixit. His mother had gone to the school authorities, the police, and to the parents of some of her son's tormentors. Nothing seemed to change. Facebook refused to release printouts of offending material it had removed to be used as evidence to back up her claims.
My hosts do not regard their home town as a particularly "bad" area and have lived there for many years.
The other family I visited also had just had their car stolen. As veterans of the anti-apartheid struggle they were not fazed by the violence and were quite philosophical about the loss - it had been a 17 year old car. Having been very much involved in both the theory and practice of non-violent conflict resolution I found their reflections on the causes of violence and crime in South African society fascinating.
Firstly, they blamed the militarisation of South African society under Apartheid. Young men of 17 had been conscripted for 2 yeas and had to serve a further 3 months each year for the next ten years. Engaging in torture, casual violence, and sometimes serious military combat in Namibia, Angola, Mozambique and in the townships had had a traumatising and brutalising effect on them in the most formative years of young adulthood. Every year for ten years they were re-inserted into civil society with no proper demobilisation process. In consequence, their relationships were often characterised by an extreme authoritarianism, extremely "black and white" them and us attitudes, and an endemically violent social, family and employment environment. Alcoholism and domestic abuse were rampant.
Secondly, they blamed the enduring extreme economic and social inequalities of South African life. Despite sustained economic growth, real unemployment is, if anything, growing. The black middle class may have grown from near zero under Apartheid to 8 million now, but that, if anything, has exacerbated felt inequalities for those who remain trapped in urban or rural squalor. Indeed some people (of all races) I have spoken to say they felt safer under Apartheid: It may have been a brutal police state, but you knew you where safe provided you adhered to the boundaries. Now the rich can afford to protect themselves behind armed guards and razor wire whilst the poor are often defenceless against violence and crime frequently visited upon them "by their own kind".
Thirdly, my friends instanced the lack of any in depth reconciliation and counselling services available to most ordinary South Africans. The Truth and Reconciliation Commission chaired by Archbishop Desmond Tutu had been a model of its kind, but effected only a small proportion of the relatively high profile violence engendered by Apartheid. There is no widespread organised process for alleviating the trauma of the victims of ongoing violence and crime. Hence the violence is passed from generation to generation: "The fathers have eaten bitter fruit; and the children's teeth are set on edge..."
As I write this, the Government is proposing a Presidential Pardon for 149 prisoners individually responsible for up to 21 murders in the period up to 1999 on the grounds that their crimes were politically motivated - chiefly during the Inkatha/ANC violence in Natal - where many political activists (and sometimes their entire families) were murdered. Victim advocacy groups complain that these prisoners chose not to avail of the TRC process and have never revealed the location of their weapons caches. Although their surviving victims (or their relatives) are to be "consulted" prior to he pardons, they are often only now learning of the identity of their assailants, of the details of how their loved ones died, and have only a few weeks to lodge their objection or approval. Victim Groups complain tha whilst the goal posts are being moved for the perpetrators, little, if anything, was ever done for the victims in the meantime.
The other obsessive topic of conversation in the newspapers and media as well as in everyday conversation is the alleged prevalence of corruption in every aspect of political life. Whilst the high level allegations against President Zuma and others have been well documented, what appears to concern ordinary citizens more is the alleged endemic corruption in the police and in the public tendering and appointments processes. Whether this is largely due to the disentitlement of previously entitled groups and the understandable favouring of previously discriminated groups is difficult for an outsider like me to say. Corruption is not unique to South Africa, was prevalent under Apartheid, and is, of course, by no means confined to the public sector - the area in which Black African advancement has been most pronounced.
Of course, there is also much that is positive in South Africa today. The World Cup brought an upsurge in national pride and unity particularly as it related to the majority sport in South Africa (unlike the 1994 Rugby World Cup recently celebrated in the film Invictus). Investment in public infrastructure remains strong - particularly the new King Shaka airport and the spectacular new football stadium in Durban. Of course that money might have been spent in more social productive ways, but one should not underestimate the benefits in public morale and economic development brought by the tournament.
My friends also report an increasing colour blindness amongst the younger generation and of course there is now no conscription. Whilst many older whites may forever moan about the injustices of positive discrimination, there is no doubt that the vast majority have benefited from the ending of Apartheid, and I suspect even most of the moaners would not want to go back there again. The rise of a black middle class may result in class distinctions increasingly replacing racial ones and certainly there is an amount of conspicuous consumption that is jarring to European eyes. However no one said change was going to be easy or achieved all in one go. The fight for justice and fairness is ongoing and I am proud to have some friends at the forefront of that fight.