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SA: Crime Contextual

by Nomad Sun Dec 16th, 2007 at 11:37:13 AM EST

Part I: Crime Anecdotal
Part II: Crime Analytical

In the previous instalments in this series of diaries I first regaled my anecdotal evidence of crime in Johannesburg (Part 1). Next, I attempted to show how national statistics indicate that the worst crimes are not spiralling out of control, to the contrary, they are in decline, albeit slowly - despite the impressions alive in the western world. Also I argued that the majority of crimes are material ones (Part 2). In response, my analysis was scrutinized and audited by in-house statistician wizard JakeS who corroborated those views. In the latter part I also focussed on the exaggeration of the press on crime and hinted at my beliefs that darker reasons than just sensationalism and shock were at work. This third, and for now last, instalment is the most speculative of the three: these are my impressions as to explain why we see those headlines in the press, why the SA press chooses consistently sensationalism above context but it also seeks to entertain reasons why crime is relatively high in the first place.

From: Zapiro

I wouldn't say I'm a complete authority to do such an analysis - I'm living only less than a year in South Africa after all. But it's perhaps wise to put my current thoughts to paper and see what or if something changes over the years.

For the record: ten months in South Africa, I own no car, I make extensive use of public transport or just walk on the streets, I regularly work in the more infamous townships. Zero times robbed or assaulted.

Here's a send-in letter, found in The Star newspaper, dated November 7, 2007 and I re-write it in whole as it is so illustrating:

SA is a crime-ridden hell-hole
Once again it is with profound anger and disdain that I read the screaming headline (published in The Star yesterday) "Patient shot dead at Bara".

The sub-headline then goes on to say "Incidents trigger outcry over inept security at country's hospitals". Why is the outcry about security at a hospital rather than an outcry as to why the damn hospitals needs so much security in the first place! Once again it's just an indication of what a crime-ridden hell-hole South Africa has become.
We have been subjected to so much crime that we are starting to accept it as part of our daily life to the point where instead of focusing on the problem, we accept the problem and focus rather on the symptom.

The mind boggles at the amount of crime and corruption that we are bombarded with on a daily basis. Yet each day we see and hear people complaining about how bad it is (myself included) and yet there seems to be no-one really willing to take up this fight and start some sort of movement aimed at forcing the issue with government.

The entire country comes to a standstill when Cosatu decide to strike over a few percent in pay increases, is crime not an even more important issue? Imagine the spare cash laying around for wages if the amount spent on security was only halved. Why don't Cosatu, together with the whole nation, who would be willing supporters, take up this issue and force this government to take immediate and drastic steps to end this scourge?
Perhaps not in this particular case, but certainly part of the problem is that the whole of Africa is flooding into our country taking jobs from locals and worse, committing crime with no regard for the impact it has on our people, our image, our economy and our future. The reason being that their countries are already down the creek so why should they give a damn about us?

In all honesty, what will the World Cup in South Africa benefit Nigeria, Zimbabwe or any other African nation? Not a whole heap, that's for sure. How will a prosperous and advancing South Africa benefit Chad, the Ivory Coast or Niger? Not an iota, so this country is viewed as "virgin territory" for these gangsters regardless of the cost to South Africans.

The government needs to shut down our borders, kick the illegals out, reinstate the death penalty and build up and honest, willing and capable police and defence force. Just picture if you will for a moment; about 3-million people - plenty criminals sent packing, a huge well-pad and very motivated police force patrolling our streets, murderers, hijackers and rapists facing the prospect of death if caught and knowing that being caught is almost certain. People walking the streets of cities at any time of the night and day - in safety, children going to school without any fear of being knifed or beaten up.
Drug dealers and robbers hidden far away in cold cells where their only victims are each other. Alas, we all know none of this will come to pass because for every logical and workable solution there are 100 illogical reasons put forward by the powers that be as to why the solutions won't be implemented.
(Name removed)

This letter, in all its infuriating glory, is perhaps the best example I've found, bar none, of what's endemic throughout this country -I am almost certain I will refer to this letter for many years to come.

It portrays the stereotypes you will hear and read about in South Africa and in the international press - until one begins to question those chiselled wisdoms. It also repeats the questioned wisdom that over 3 million Zimbabweans are now in South Africa, it calls for the reinstatement of the death penalty - while time and time again it has been shown that the threat of jail time is a better disincentive.

Why is there crime?
The SAPS report (pdf!), which starred in the previous part for its statistics, pointed at six main factors which were all, according to report, socio-economic problems. Those were: urbanisation, poverty and unemployment, vigilantism, previous offenders and alcohol and drugs.

Urbanisation - My back-on-the envelope estimate is that over 80% of the entire population of South Africa is concentrated in cities. And the migration to the cities hasn't stopped: Johannesburg, as a city, is practically glorified in the impoverished urban areas. "You're from Johannesburg? Wow!" People still pack up and travel to the cities to find the glory of shiny cars and plasma screens, while all too often they find that many thousands of people share the same dream and end up sharing the same fate of poverty and unemployment. The black market lures quickly, and opportunist crime does, too.

Then there is, lest we not forget it, Zimbabwe. Perhaps not 3 millions of them, but still thousands and thousands have literally escaped from the country, have gone through a hundred hells - from crocodile infested swamps, to the guma guma - organized bands of thugs that maraud the border areas, rape the women, and have no scruples to even take the clothes of the backs of the refugees, leaving them naked in the fields. Many flock to cities with literally nothing but their brains and skills.

The desperation that poverty brings coupled to a success rate in crime is all part of the picture in a country where the GINI index remains staggeringly huge.

However, the one topic that feels to me as the elephant in the room is the intact infrastructure and psychology of apartheid thrust upon the people of South Africa, black and white. Poverty and unemployment easily slot in there - but vigilantism, previous offenders, alcohol and drugs fit with almost even more ease - to my personal opinion.

The infrastructure speaks for itself the moment one visits South Africa. The townships are, bar none, located at distance of the city centre and industrial areas. Soweto was deliberately designed downwind of the enormous mine dumps which form a geographical barrier with Johannesburg's centre. (Because of the cyanide used for gold extraction, living downwind of the mine dumps is not particularly healthy.) Whilst there has been somewhat of a reversal of this trend, with the black population moving into the cities and the white population moved out and into walled suburbs, the gross majority of the population lives in the township areas - situated ridiculously far away from work and forcing many to spend over half of their total wages on transportation alone(!). Work is now developing in the townships, and for Johannesburg, cheap apartments are being created within town, but the situation remains hopelessly skewed.

Apartheid made sure that no money remained in the townships - groceries had to be bought outside. Apart from the black market and the infamous shebeens, now (partly) turned tourist attractions, entrepreneurship was virtually absent from any township when apartheid was lifted. It set a perfect breeding ground for finding a solution out of poverty with crime.

The infrastructure problems all seems to be addressed, in some form, by the ANC government who is taking on the challenges of providing housing, infrastructure and roads which need to cater now for all peoples of South Africa - instead of a select few millions. But it's the psychology about which I've nary read a thing in the papers - while, as an outsider, it appears the most overlooked explainer for what's happening around here.

This country harbours a lot of anger - it's also extremely xenophobic. People can't stand it that the country is flooded with "cheap" labourers from Mali, DRC, Zimbabwe - "They are stealing our jobs". A phrase I have now heard dozens of time spoken with righteous anger - see the letter above.

South Africa has possibly the world's largest recorded amount of serial murders, or if equal to the USA and Russia it would still have the highest rate of serial killers per capita. A resort to violence is all around taken for granted, and it almost seems entrenched to me, whether it's by the South African police, or by the governmental "Red Ants". The stormy present had a recent anecdotal post underlining that.

Zapiro's on-point mockery of police brutality

Then there are the "vigilante" groups who patrol in the areas where the population is convinced the police isn't doing her job (2002 BBC report). Which is dominantly in the townships and the rural areas, but vigilantism and self-correction can happen practically anywhere. A few months ago, one of the sensationalist newspapers opened its morning edition with a page-wide photograph of a man lying on the pavement, stripped to his underwear, his arms cradling his head, and trickles of blood fanning from his legs. He had taken a severe beating by a group of taxi-drivers after he had attempted to steal money from one of them. The general tone of the article was that this guy shouldn't have been so foolish to take on a taxi driver. Nowhere it was mentioned that what the taxi drivers had done was in violation with South African laws.

But under apartheid, justice in the township was self-correcting, swift and harsh. And vigilantism has a long history in Africa: Vigilantism was well entrenched in the cultures of South Africa long before apartheid came along, but it seems to me it was perverted under apartheid into an extreme, violent shape (if you'd follow only one link of this diary, make it this one).  There was no police to control the townships; practically all of them were stationed outside them and only came in to "correct" uproarious black people. Many vigilante groups in the townships and Bantustans were bought by the apartheid regime and were ruthlessly targeting resistance fighters and families. With the original controlling factors gone, in a practical sense aligned with the apartheid powers, "street justice" and "townships justice" was organised, partly to protect the communities from the vigilante groups, partly to reinstate a form of control and correction on the communities.

So families would correct grave injustices themselves. "Township justice" has not disappeared today, and it's a commonly used phrase. I'd not wish someone a piece of modern township justice.

Rainbow Nation?

A cynical reason of viewing South Africa as a "Rainbow nation", a nation united, is because so many indigenous cultures of what is now South Africa were destroyed during apartheid. You always hear about the Zulu, and the San - but it seems that tens of cultures have been obliterated under apartheid rule, as those people were uprooted, displaced and lumped together in Bantustans with other, bigger cultures. There is no way in my mind South Africa could have gone back to the situation before the white domination. "Only" eleven languages are officially recognised, the country with the most recognized languages after India - but there could have been so many more.

So. The traditional cultures and customs were destroyed by the oppression and the pressure cooker of the townships and the Bantustans. The solution was found in thuggery, brutality, perhaps steered by the brutality the black cultures were suppressed by.

Robert Guest, who wrote the "The Shackled Continent", which I found a very lucent but at times frustrating read, commented on the inherent South African violence as follows:

Both crime and the response to it seem to be fired by a palpable anger in South African society. This anger may have political roots. Many whites are furious that they no longer run the country, while many blacks are frustrated that they are not yet rich. The least intelligent whites, for whom apartheid job reservation was most beneficial, are probably the angriest now that it has gone. A couple of white security guards used to patrol the street where I lived in Johannesburg in a state of permanent rage that they no longer had nice jobs working for the state railway firm. One used to cradle his pistol and say things like: "I hate the fucking kaffirs. I fucking hate them. I want to fucking shoot them all." He was soon fired and replaced with a more personable black guy.

Note that "kaffir" is probably the most offensive and racist word in this country and should not be trifled with in any circumstance.

My premature conclusion: A history of violence and oppression has left this nation and its peoples traumatized and, as a whole, psychologically damaged, with its cultural backgrounds, the mental anchor to stabilize the people, ripped to shreds and too feeble to be restored.

Add hard-drugs as cocaine and alcohol to this already unstable mixture, and you get a cocktail that brims with potential violent and illegal acts which all end up in the statistics of this country. Gangsterism is also a glorified way of life in the townships. Live life to the max has been perverted into living a violent, senseless life destined to be short.

Hence: you're not dealing with a normal nation in any sense of the word. It's not western, in the first place, but second to that, it's not a normal country. This nation has only just started to heal - and while all intentions are there to move away from its divisive, oppressive history, all the social structures I've been exposed to indicate to me the tell-tales of trauma - something which never seems acknowledged because it seems so penetrative at all levels and hence so "ordinary" to everyone except people from the outside.

Why is the press focus on crime exploits so huge?
In Part 2, I already hinted that the majority of the newspapers seek the sensational angle in reporting crime. Sensationalism sells, I'm sure, and it should be weighted accordingly. Yet I could not help wonder to note a certain divide between the reporting style between different cases. Were the victims white, some Afrikaner newspapers would make long interviews with the victims or relatives who would provide long litanies how depraved this country had become. Were the victims not white, that same conclusion could not be reached in those papers - they were lacking in their coverage. The suspicion that apartheid thinking was at work made my neck hairs stood up, but I couldn't shake it. There are at least three main papers I know of that now have black chief editors - but not at the Afrikaans papers (which, as a Dutchman, I can follow quite well).

Apartheid thinking: this nation of ours, even when we believed apartheid was wrong, is now overwhelmed by violent crime, released from its shackles after apartheid was abolished. Opinions could range from "Told you so" from the hardcore FreedomFront+ Afrikaners, to the people who feel "apartheid was wrong, but now even innocent us bear the brunt of our decision".

It's the New Apartheid: we don't say black people are violent, or stupid, or a plague, we just tell stories that imply so.

The most baffling comment to date I've heard comes from my girlfriend, who was travelling with a (white) lady to Pretoria to attend a court case. They hit the subject of crime and the lady in question made the following remark, in the spirit of:

"I do wonder why current crime is so high. There used to be hardly any crime during the apartheid years".

There used to be hardly any crime during apartheid.

For anyone who has made a little study of the history of this country this comment goes not only beyond the pale, the pale should be outraged itself.

Because it blithely continues the apartheid myths that townships were of no concern for the white population and Bantustans were "independent states" of no concern for the apartheid regime - while they were anything but independent. It indicates to me that even people who opposed apartheid have taken little thought of what it truly meant to grow up in a township. And this is another aspect that is slowly but gradually infuriating me with my fellow white colleagues - who are more than willing to accept the new situation, but refuse to join me to go to Soweto or, save us, Alexandra township. I should diary about that another time in full - but it all forms part of the picture I've built over the past ten months.

And the lady in question was one of the good guys.

It seems to me that white thinking of superiority remains tangibly present in the white population, and at times at a level people aren't even aware of, except for a rare few. The Afrikaner press either feeds on this myth thinking or have embraced it themselves.

I expected the second part to be longer, but I can't really see how I could underline it better as I've done now: the psychological imprinting of apartheid is not dead in this country. The damage it wreaked on black cultures, personal pride, dignity and way of life remains evident, as well as the victimization of those "poor, suffering" white people - even for those who did the right thing.

If that doesn't further the conditions for anger, trauma, an embracing of violence and xenophobia, if it doesn't feed into crime and illegality, I am overwhelmingly lost to rationalize this country.

There you have it. I feel this nation needs a lot more of healers and healing - it could do without the stigmatisation abroad, or statistical myths that have no grounds with reality, cued from the (in my perspective) tainted South African press. It needs people, custodians with a heart, to make the dream of Desmond Tutu real.

The image I now have of crime in South Africa:
. It's still horrid 16%
. You're making matters worse Nomad 0%
. I'm not convinced of your analysis 0%
. It makes more sense to me 83%

Votes: 6
Results | Other Polls
In all honesty, I should've written about Polokwane and the ANC presidency succession - but I wanted to close the lid on this subject before the holidays.

Whatever the outcome of Polokwane, crime and crime reporting will dominatefor years to come and hence I gave this subject a higher priority.

Secondly, metavision queried in my last diary how these diaries could be amalgamated into an essay for publication. I'd be keen to, but the funnel is: what outlet should I target? Preferably I'd aim for a western audience as I feel it is there were stigmatisation of South African crime is disproprotionally harmful. I've absolutely no idea what outlet to target, however, and would welcome any advice on this.

by Nomad on Sun Dec 16th, 2007 at 11:53:56 AM EST
W.O.W.!  I re-query myself? because this is fantastic work.  It has humane sense, common sense and needs to be heard.  (Am I repeating myself?)

Cultures cannot be rolled over and declared officially healed by political change because individuals have not healed and they have no equal means to start over.  The old way of life, the old social glue is destroyed and a new one is not built yet, creating desperation.

(Sven, others, help me here)  Thinking about not just press contacts in SA or Netherlands, but maybe through local ONG´s that could get coverage.  LTE´s, university newsletter and even some Dutch connections among them?  Any progressive SA blog?

Our knowledge has surpassed our wisdom. -Charu Saxena.

by metavision on Sun Dec 16th, 2007 at 04:03:41 PM EST
[ Parent ]
I honestly don't think I could write about Polokwane and the ANC right now without wanting to shoot myself.  Bring on the robbers.
by the stormy present (stormypresent aaaaaaat gmail etc) on Sun Dec 16th, 2007 at 04:56:54 PM EST
[ Parent ]
Grrrrreat stuff, bru.  Spot on.
by the stormy present (stormypresent aaaaaaat gmail etc) on Sun Dec 16th, 2007 at 04:53:22 PM EST
Great diary, Nomad. Yes, the great white elephant of apartheid is there between the lines of that letter. Everything about it reminds me of what "reasonable" South Africans would say back in the '60s, except that now you're not supposed to talk about "separate development" so you talk about invading African thugs and criminals who are not ours, and you call for the death penalty and a strong police, and you take a swipe at unions en passant.

No change there that I can see <gloom>.

by afew (afew(a in a circle)eurotrib_dot_com) on Mon Dec 17th, 2007 at 03:32:25 PM EST
great diary, nomad, really well written.

i look forward to more in this series, you have an accurate eye, and a big heart.

masterful blogging...

'The history of public debt is full of irony. It rarely follows our ideas of order and justice.' Thomas Piketty

by melo (melometa4(at)gmail.com) on Tue Dec 18th, 2007 at 03:14:40 AM EST

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