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How violence is shaping South Africa

Maverick Life


How violence is shaping South Africa

REIGER PARK, SOUTH AFRICA - MAY 22: A policeman runs past burning homes May 22, 2008 in the shantytown of Reiger Park, South Africa. Violence continued against the immigrant community by poor South Africans, who claim that the immigrants take away their job opportunities. (Photo by John Moore/Getty Images)

‘It is evident that for many South Africans the negotiation of occupation of both private and public space is mediated by an appreciation of threat of crime or violence (be this entirely valid or not).’

On Wednesday 13 July, a couple of days into the riots and looting that President Cyril Ramaphosa described as “acts of public violence of a kind rarely seen in the history of our democracy”, images of citizen-on-citizen violence started popping up with increasing frequency on social media. By this stage, it had become clear that the police were overwhelmed and, as the president would admit two days later, “did not have the capabilities and plans in place to respond swiftly and decisively”.

Citizens took it upon themselves to defend their neighbourhoods from fellow citizens. In Soweto, residents gathered to defend Maponya Mall,  guarding it around the clock. Meanwhile, in Phoenix — a largely Indian township in KwaZulu-Natal — roadblocks and armed residents began popping up. And under the #PhoenixMassacre hashtag and elsewhere, criticism about racial profiling at some of those “roadblocks” followed, as did reports of death and injury.

As reported by Des Erasmus, “Patrol groups in richer suburbs are armed with handguns, rifles and shotguns, but in the poorer areas, Daily Maverick saw weapons that included sjamboks, air pistols, paintball guns, sticks, hammers, mallets, cricket bats, swords, pool cues and frying pans. Other residents are walking the streets openly praying for the protection of neighbourhoods.”

By the following day, the Minister of Police Bheki Cele was on the news confirming 20 deaths, and downplaying accusations of racism and racial profiling among community policing forums. “The primary problem here is criminality, there is a secondary problem which is the racial connotations that has happened… There are things like this that have happened in places including Umhlanga and Amanzimtoti where you are stopped because of who occupies the car. It is true. That problem cannot be dismissed, but criminality is primary for me,” he told the reporters.


“It is evident that exposure to high levels of criminality and widespread fear of crime contribute not only to individual and group anxieties and attitudes but also to public discourses that entrench notions of threat and justify intergroup prejudice.”

The above excerpt is from an article penned by Professor Gillian Eagle, from the University of Witwatersrand’s Department of Psychology. It was published in the peer-reviewed journal, Pins (Psychology in Society). Even though it was published back in 2015, it reads as though it could have been written today, such is its relevance to July 2021 South Africa. Titled “Crime, fear and continuous traumatic stress in South Africa: What place social cohesion?”, it makes for — if this can be said of a scholarly paper — riveting reading, at least in its relevance.

What Place Social Cohesion

That South Africa is a society plagued by inequality and a high level of violence is not exactly breaking news, and as suggested by the title of her paper, Eagle reflects in part on how this prevalence of violence and the accompanying trauma further shapes us, at an individual level as well as a society; and then how it affects the project of social cohesion, as well as the inverse, how social cohesion might affect the prevalence of crime and violence. “I would suggest that we are struggling to escape a rather perverse set of social patterns in relation to crime and violence, where the impact of high levels of exposure and associated fear, anxiety, anger, aggression and disillusionment, contributes to a breakdown in desirable aspects of social cohesion, creating a context in which further violations continue to take place largely unchecked,” she writes. 

More specifically, she looks at the South African response to crime and violence through two lenses, “the one, Fear of Crime (FoC), representing a possibly exaggerated response to risk, and the other, Continuous Traumatic Stress (CTS), in many instances associated with the need to minimise or accommodate to the reality of threat in order to survive in inescapably crime-ridden environments.”

Fear of Crime

“It is evident that for many South Africans the negotiation of occupation of both private and public space is mediated by an appreciation of threat of crime or violence (be this entirely valid or not). Such heightened threat perception contributes to often tense or suspicious interchanges between people who interact as strangers… In addition, however, there is also considerable anxiety concerning people who live in one’s immediate environment, with 63% of households believing ‘that property and violent crime were likely to be committed by people from their own areas’ (Statistics South Africa, 2014). What is interesting about this finding is that it suggests that for large numbers of South African citizens there is a sense of living amongst other people who will potentially violate their rights — danger lies within rather than only outside of one’s community,” she writes.

While crime affects South Africans through a cross-section of our society, statistically, poor and marginalised communities are disproportionally affected. However, as Eagle states, “there is a pervasive sense amongst middle class, and perhaps, particularly white middle class, citizens that they are the primary targets of and most vulnerable to crime. Such perceptions have contributed to what some have termed a ‘siege mentality’ epitomised in visible home security, restricted access to particular suburbs and employment of private security companies.”

It is arguable that for many South Africans, the wave of rioting and looting alongside the perception of crime, becomes then a confirmation of these long-seated fears, that indeed, they are under siege, and amplifies that sense “of living amongst other people who will potentially violate their rights”.

While this is not a situation that might bring the phrase social cohesion to mind, Eagle draws on her own as well as the work of other experts, to argue that this leads to a different kind of social cohesion: “It seems then that there may be a considerable difference between social cohesion borne out of pro-social communitarian aims as opposed to that bourne out of purely defensive aims. In addition, networking based on prioritisation of protections against crime often contributes to vicarious traumatisation as opposed to an increased sense of calm and optimism in interactions….”

She posits that “while mobilisation against crime may bring people together to take collective action, it may also contribute to heightened anxiety and to building a false or exclusionary sense of social cohesion that perpetuates the larger social divides that contribute to the conditions within which crime escalates. However, it is a feature of South African life that cannot be ignored in efforts to build a more inclusive and egalitarian society.”

Continuous Traumatic Stress

According to two surveys quoted by Eagle, the prevalence of PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder) for Americans is 7.8%, whereas according to the South African Stress and Health (Sash) study conducted in 2008, was found to be lower than anticipated at 2.3%. “The Sash researchers proposed that their South African respondents might express their distress somewhat differently from commonly assumed patterns, presenting with higher levels of depression and somatic problems, but also potentially with sub-clinical features of PTSD and what might appear closer to general stress patterns,” writes Eagle.

While the concept of post-traumatic stress is quite mainstream and familiar to many, the perhaps lesser-known Continuous Traumatic Stress concept, is perhaps more apt for populations such as South Africa, says Eagle. “It is evident that for certain groups of people, such as migrants from other African countries, and those living in particular environments such as the ‘Flats’ townships of the Western Cape, exposure to traumatic events and the threat of future victimisation is the norm rather than the exception. For these kinds of populations fear of assault, robbery and violence is realistic and has to be managed as a dimension of daily life,” she writes, going on to explain that living in environments with increased likelihood of exposure to trauma, “produces very high levels of anxiety, hyperarousal and potential for alarm”.

How then do impoverished, marginalised, anxious, hyper-aroused and alarmed South Africans, manage their existence? According to Eagle, many may engage in polarised ways to manage, “in most cases ‘keeping their heads down’ and demonstrating social inhibition and withdrawal, but in some instances, most particularly in the case of young men, assuming aggressive, violence threatening identities themselves.”

What next?

“It is difficult to envisage how communities can attempt to create social cohesion when the social fabric which is designed to provide the scaffolding within which to establish this lacks potency and credibility. One could question, for example, whether vigilantism against those identified as criminals within a community represents some form of social cohesion? However, given the kind of brutality that is enacted in such situations and the potentiality for misallegations; while such actions may be comprehensible, it is hard to view them as representing the kind of social cohesion that has positive valence for community psychologists and for this special edition,” she writes.

Besides acts of “vigilantism”, and as a week of rioting and looting came to a close, South Africans participated in other forms of social cohesion, as many gathered to clean up their neighbourhoods. However, this too would likely be transient. What follows once the streets are cleaned and the neighbourhoods return to relative safety? What of social cohesion as a tool against violence and crime?

Considering the preoccupation with, as well as the very real vulnerability to crime, Eagle states, “This, in turn, contributes not only to impaired enjoyment and constructive engagement in daily living but also to the thinning and shearing of social bonds,” and then asks, “How then does one begin to entertain and create the conditions for a form of social cohesion that contributes to a less crime facilitating and interpersonally abusive society?”

Towards her conclusion, she spends a few pages exploring some ways in which communities can unite for the greater good, as well as the importance of an effective “law and order” infrastructure as motivation, but she also notes that there are no easy answers for South Africa at the intersection of crime, violence and social cohesion. Not then, back when she wrote the paper, and seemingly not now, six years later. 

She concludes: “Sociopolitical change is reliant on a citizenry that holds others accountable at every level, from immediate neighbourhood to government. In addition, an active citizenry needs to both censure that which violates and to promote that which creates the conditions for an ethical and humane society, in large measure by exposing and tackling links between structural and more closely interpersonal violence. It is towards this form of social cohesion that we need to aim if we are to attempt to address not only the conditions and states of mind stemming from such high levels of criminality in South Africa but also if we wish to seek to alter the kind of climates within which such criminal potentiality is likely to continue to be generated.”  DM/ML


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  • On the button. The ANC has an opportunity to review the policy that is at the root of all of our ills.
    Pivot to market friendly policy and unleash the productive ability we have in order to create the wealth to fund education and other social services whilst growing job numbers rapidly. Without this pivot we simply and inexorably slide into a failed State with rampant poverty and crime.

  • [Gillian Eagle} She concludes: “Sociopolitical change is reliant on a citizenry that holds others accountable at every level, from immediate neighbourhood to government ..”

    We also need a citizenry, and persons, that ACCEPT accountability.

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