Saturday, April 06, 2013

South Africa: Crime and violence is not all black and white in South Africa

Crime and violence is not all black and white in South Africa

Source: ISS

‘Man, superman, gunman: Oscar Pistorius and South Africa’s culture of violence.’ This was the headline article in the influential Time magazine of 11 March 2013. In the article journalist Alex Perry makes the case for why South Africa is so violent. Yet, despite the clarity of his carefully constructed argument, the broad-brushstroke analysis he offers of what ails South Africa conceals as much as it reveals. The article also revels in gross generalisations. Perry presents a country characterised by insurmountable racial and class divisions and ruled by a kleptocratic elite, where Oscar Pistorius and Reeva Steenkamp are taken as representatives of white fears, aspiration and lifestyle.

In many respects the article presents a compelling argument, especially to non-South African readers of Time. But, however cunningly written, the article is also offensive and re-plays the tired meta-narrative of South Africa that hides the complexity of our society. The generalisations are as harmful as they are wrong.

Perry bases his article on facts that serve to obscure the shortcomings in his analysis. His statistics are accurate and it is undeniable that the extreme levels of inequality and high violent crime remain serious obstacles to change and development. Indeed, most of his key points about the high levels of crime and violence echo the arguments made regularly by researchers at the Institute for Security Studies (ISS): that grossly high levels of inequality; on-going racism; the balkanisation of the middle class behind ever stronger security measures; the resort to the protection of private security by those who can afford it; and the multiple, crippling failures of the police as a result of a stream of ill-equipped leaders, are all serious and related problems.

However, where Perry’s approach differs is in the intent and motive for drawing attention to the failures of the state and society. Perry’s article is intended to shock. His use of dramatic language and reference to the extremes of the country’s failures create the image of a country hurtling headlong into an abyss. In the townships of Perry’s South Africa, ‘blacks beat and kill Zimbabweans, Somalis and Congolese’ and ‘vigilante beatings and killings are the norm’. Whites tremble in fear behind their security fences and ‘Afrikaner whites separate themselves from English whites, nursing a distrust that dates from the ... Boer war’. In his final analysis, Perry concludes that ‘a nation whose racial reconciliation is even today hailed as an example to the world, is in reality, ever more dangerously splintered by crime. And inside this national disintegration, however small and well-defended South Africans make their laagers, it is never enough. Father rapes daughter. Mother poisons sons. Icon shoots cover girl.’

This does not represent the reality of many South Africans. Oscar Pistorius, with his penchant for guns and high living and his paranoia about crime, does not represent all white South Africans.

It is true that South Africans have a long way to go to overcome racism. It is also true that violent crime is high and that the state has failed in numerous ways to live up to South Africans’ collective expectations. Yet, it is just as true that in many respects South Africa is succeeding; and that its people are making progress towards overcoming these obstacles. There are numerous examples of where South Africans across racial and language barriers have created common spaces that are creative, productive and positive.

If proof is needed, one need only look at both the national victims of crime survey as well as the 2012 national Reconciliation Barometer of the Institute for Justice and Reconciliation. The Reconciliation Barometer shows that overall respect for the rule of law in South Africa has improved since 2003; that more than 60% of South Africans have confidence in national government; and that 70% have confidence in the Constitutional Court. The 2012 national victims of crime survey found that close to 60% of South Africans believed that the police and courts were doing a good job. The Reconciliation Barometer also reported that ‘while many young people still associate strongly with the same identity groups as their parents’ generation – constructed around language, ethnicity and gender – they also demonstrate growing approval for racial integration and an interest in meeting and learning more about others. Critically, youth are also more likely to build stronger relationships across these divides.’

We also know from South African Police Service (SAPS) data that the number of peaceful protests and demonstrations by citizens outnumber violent protests by nine to one. Although it is the violent protests that make the headlines, they do not characterise the vast bulk of public activism in South Africa.

It is unfortunate that many of the positive signs are not easily counted. There is currently no national count for the number of home-based carers who work in communities to help and support people suffering from chronic diseases for a tiny stipend. These carers and their organisations provide services across racial barriers. There is also no national tally of the number of small community-based organisations that exist in both urban and rural spaces and provide a range of services to their communities, from crèches to after school care, counselling support and educational support. We also don’t keep count of the number of inter-racial and cross-language relationships; or the number of people who daily offer lifts to strangers without incident.

It is easy to point to the failures. South Africans count them, debate them, and berate themselves for them daily, in sitting rooms and taverns, on talk shows and in the press. And yet, in doing so it is easy to miss and dismiss that which is good, and which outstrips that which still needs to be fixed. Articles like the one by Perry take this country no closer to that goal.

Chandre Gould, Senior Researcher, Governance, Crime and Justice Division, ISS Pretoria