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South Africa

Psyche of the Nation: The causes of repeat violent offending in South Africa (and what to do about it)

Psyche of the Nation: The causes of repeat violent offending in South Africa (and what to do about it)

After five years of intensive research, a process involving thousands of violent criminals in the country’s least forgiving prisons, the Institute of Security Studies and the Department of Correctional Services have finally released their findings: the key to violent crime lies encoded in the mind and body of the past. KEVIN BLOOM reports.

I. Stimulus

Meet Ryan. Born in Durban in 1966, all he can say about his biological father is that the man was in and out of prison so often they gave him the nickname “Tjookie”. Ryan’s stepfather, on the other hand, is a font of cherished memories. When the family was living in the Eskom compound outside the small Highveld town of Balfour, and Ryan as the eldest of six children got “blamed for a lot of the kak that used to happen at home”, sometimes his mother would get tired of moering him and ask her husband to have a go instead. Ryan’s stepdad would march him into the room and tell him to jump on the bed and only pretend to moer him, a secret that forged an unbreakable bond. As for Ryan’s mother, years later she would say this: “I became a mother with him at age 17 years. I did not want him but my mother forced me to keep him. I was very hard on him; I slapped him around a lot. I never took to him. I did not like him.”

The above quote appears on page 45 of monograph number 192 of the Institute of Security Studies (ISS), published in December 2015 under the title Beaten bad: The life stories of violent offenders. At the bottom of the same page we are offered an insight into Ryan’s adult persona, a take so intimate and revealing it’s almost worthy of the label “art” (assuming we accept Pablo Picasso’s definition, where “the purpose of art is washing the dust of daily life off our souls.”)

“[Ryan] remained calm and personable throughout the interviews, engaging the interviewers in discussions about the parole system and the purpose of punishment and incarceration,” writes senior ISS researcher Chandre Gould, the monograph’s author. “The only time he became agitated was when he described how he had murdered his brother. This he did in a great deal of detail – the minutiae of what happened in the hours leading up to the incident being shared as though he had an unconscious expectation that one of these details held the truth he sought to help him understand how he came to beat his brother to death with a hammer. ”

As one of five narratives chosen for detailed analysis in the 137-page monograph, Ryan’s story is exemplary of the issues raised by the vast majority of participants – in all, 6,000 potential respondents in the pilot study (conducted 2010) and 2,930 potential respondents in the main study (conducted 2013) were whittled down to these five, with Ryan serving his demographic duty as the sole white offender. Funded by the Open Society Foundation for South Africa, and undertaken as a partnership between the ISS and the Department of Correctional Services (DCS), the aim of the five-year project had never been anything short of paradigm-shifting: to “describe and analyse the factors that drive and/or inhibit repeat violent offending” in our country.

After Ryan, whose narrative appears second, we meet Velabahleke, a former resident of Thokoza, who was involved in the political violence that shook South Africa during the transition to democracy, and who was ultimately imprisoned for robbery and murder. Next comes Mosiuoa, born in Soweto to a family of activists, who took part as a youngster in the political violence in Sebokeng and later drove taxis during the worst of the taxi violence in Gauteng, eventually to be arrested for his role in a cash-in-transit heist. In fifth and final place there is Zibonele, who began working full-time at the age of 14 on a Free State farm, and who moved as an adult to an informal settlement outside Kroonstad, where he raped and murdered three young girls.

But the first (and hence guiding) narrative is that of Peter, born in 1963 in Bonteheuwel on the Cape Flats. When Peter was six years old his father died and his mother threw in her lot with Fred, your stereotypical lay-about alcoholic. Four years later, Peter rejected all adult authority and dropped out of school to take up a life of drugs and petty crime. Soon enough there was a stint in a reformatory, followed by a conviction on multiple counts of murder, committed during a gang-related assault.

Regarding Peter, we read this on page 28: “Much of the literature about trauma, in South Africa and globally, has focused on the experiences of soldiers in combat and on victims of rape and child abuse. Seldom are perpetrators of violence, such as Peter, considered victims. And yet, as you will see throughout the stories in this monograph, constant and repeated trauma, as a result of being victims of violence, witnessing traumatic events and indeed perpetrating violence, has serious, long-term consequences for these men, their families and society.”

Which only sounds like liberal-minded bullshit until you bump into the fact, well known to prison warders across the world, that it is practically impossible to prevent recidivism amongst violent offenders at the point of incarceration. As the ISS monograph states, “none of the men interviewed was deterred by the risk of long prison sentences.” What Gould and her partners at DCS have attempted to demonstrate is that violent crime in society can only be reduced if a) there are systems in place to enable early detection of potential offenders, and b) there are supportive (that is, non-punitive) ways of nipping the problem in the proverbial bud. Here, phrases like “positive parenting” – as touched on in the second article of this series, also with respect to work done by Gould and the ISS – are front and centre, with practical recommendations for reducing exposure to physical and emotional abuse abounding throughout the monograph.

And if that still sounds like liberal-minded bullshit, it’s probably a sign that you’re a member of the “tough on crime/zero tolerance” camp. Should you freely admit to this, Gould has a theory she wants you to consider apropos your inherent conditioning. “Underlying that approach is the assumption that the people committing the crimes are not of us, the assumption that they are somehow other.”

II. Response

“Yes, but will any of it matter to the gangster state?”

At 1.45 pm on 7 December 2015, this could have been a question that a thousand journalists were asking a thousand interviewees in a thousand cities across the planet. I, however, was in my study in Johannesburg, Gould was in her office at the ISS headquarters in Pretoria, and the question was about our specific “gangster state”. Put another way, could a government engaged in all manner of illicit activity, involving all manner of grasping and extractive conduct, ever do anything as unselfish and inclusive as helping kids from violent backgrounds to feel more loved?

It was, of course, a question doomed to remain unanswered. Not only is Dr Sibusisiwe Bengu, director of research at DCS, acknowledged on page 5 of the monograph as a person without whom “the study may not have been possible,” but DCS is identified by Gould as a primary site for what she hopes will one day become “compassionate practice”. Again, accusations of naïveté (different only in name from accusations of liberal-mindedness) are unhelpful here, mainly because nobody else is about to release a study of such depth and breadth into the causes of violent repeat offending in South Africa. Also, after the emotive content is stripped away, the findings tend to look remarkably like common sense – violent criminals are not a race of mutant humanoids with short-circuited empathy chips, argues the monograph, they are people like you and me who never got showed enough empathy.

A rhetorical truth that is backed up and exacerbated by a new branch of biological truth, known in the trade as epigenetics. “These chemicals [such as adrenalin and cortisol] affect the way in which we retain a traumatic memory and, more importantly, affect the ability of the mind to integrate the memory into the sum of our other memories,” Gould writes in chapter 1, explaining why Peter is able to remember certain events from his past in such vivid colour. “It is as though the memory is chemically bound and held distinctly in our mind – so that triggering it is a recurrence of the trauma. This means that the memory can be recalled with tremendous accuracy and in profound detail.”

In other words, violence literally does breed more violence, a vicious circle that is programmed into our cellular structure and bequeathed as a special gift to future generations – fathers to sons, mothers to sons, parents to daughters. In South Africa, where, as Gould writes, we have progressive legislation for dealing with the prevention of violence against children, we are nowhere near providing “transitioning places of safety from harsh, prison-like environments to places of care” for these self-same kids. If your father is an abusive alcoholic with a history of gang violence, or if your mother never wanted you, or if you got pulled into political violence as an adolescent, chances are there’s nowhere for you to go to rewrite your imprinted trauma.

And the good news? The good news, it seems, is that we know the above to be true. There’s no longer any “theory” in the statement that a violent childhood has biological implications for the child in question, because it’s now scientific fact: life experience will affect how the cells read the genes.

In the above context, the ISS and DCS want us to remember that “the foundations for violence and criminality are laid anywhere between 10 and 20 years before the effects are felt by society,” meaning that interventions put in place today may only begin to have an impact on national crime levels in 2025. The bent of the monograph is towards eliciting a response from the Department of Education, the Department of Social Development and the Department of Justice and Constitutional Development; the DCS, coincidentally or not, is off the hook.

“In these narratives the children who become violent men are mostly victims themselves,” we read in the monograph’s conclusion. “They are variously the victims of trauma, racism, bullying, corporal punishment and brutalising institutions. They are also often the victims of dysfunctional families or families broken by the loss of a parent – to death, to the criminal justice system or to migrant labour – and have many experiences that reinforce their mistrust of adults and authority figures (such as teachers). This is not to excuse their often-cruel acts of violence, but it is important to acknowledge when seeking solutions…“

And so I asked my “gangster state” question in a softer, easier-to-answer way. “Will we see a shift in policy?” said Gould, repeating the question. “I don’t know. Maybe what we will see is a shift in language, a shift in perspective.” DM

Photo: South African Anglican bishops protest along with several thousand South Africans who marched through the streets of Cape Town in silence as a protest against the high rate of violent crimes in the country, South Africa Thursday 04 May 2006. EPA/NIC BOTHMA

More from the series:


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