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Why are we such a violent people?


Antony Altbeker worked for the Minister of Safety and Security and the National Treasury between 1994 and 2001, focusing on issues relating to crime and policing and on the criminal justice system. Since 2001, Antony has worked as a lecturer in public policy at a graduate school of the University of the Witwatersrand and has been a researcher at the Centre for the Study of Violence and Reconciliation and the Institute for Security Studies. He is the author of three books, The Dirty Work of Democracy: A Year on the Streets with the SAPS (2005), A Country at War with Itself: South Africa's Crisis of Crime (2007) and Fruit of a Poisoned Tree: A True Story of Murder and the Miscarriage of Justice (2010).

The overall volume of South African crime is not dramatically different from levels experienced in many other countries. What distinguishes South Africa from the rest is the prevalence of violent crime. If you want to find the answer to we are such a vicious people, you need to understand how violence shaped who and what we are.

The textbook account of the roots of present-day violence in South Africa goes something like this.

Over the past 350 years or so, state power in the geographic area that has become the Republic was exercised in the pursuit of the interests of a small minority, and operated with the raw logic of the jungle: the strongest ruled and everyone else had to bow down or be destroyed. Given its ultimate character, violence was an essential tool in shaping social, economic and political realities. In the process, traditional society was ripped apart, turning whole generations of people into disenfranchised units of labour, disembodied hands and arms and backs and legs, with no more rights than a carthorse.

The gist of this account of the roots of crime is that the violence used in the shaping of modern South Africa has not dissipated; it lingers on as a kind of background radiation, deforming and dementing us even as the forms in which it is expressed have mutated and changed. “The past is never dead,” William Faulkner wrote. “It isn’t even past.”

Aside from the devaluation of human life implicit in the building of apartheid, aside also from the destruction of family and communal life it demanded, apartheid – because it denied the majority their freedom – was a system that could never renounce violence. Whether it was the policeman looking at passes or the urban planner plotting the removal of a “black spot”, apartheid was premised on the sustained threat of coercive force. It was an essential by-product of the system.

Apartheid, then, produced violence in the same way that industrialisation produced and produces global warming. It also taught anyone who paid attention that one could do anything to secure one’s material interests: any pain or oppression could be inflicted if those with the power felt so inclined. This is not the kind of lesson lawmakers should teach their subjects unless they are prepared to hold power forever.

The first element of the textbook account of the roots of violence in South Africa, then, implicates apartheid. The second implicates resistance.

If apartheid was premised on pervasive violence, both implicit and explicit, resistance to apartheid – by taking millions of children out of school and putting them on the frontline of the struggle, by legitimating the use of violence and teaching many its techniques – poisoned the same well. However noble the cause, however honourable its leaders, the violence of resistance was a crucial element of the country’s ambience, its social atmosphere.

To the nature of apartheid and the resistance it engendered, accounts of present-day violence often add a third element: the disappointments of democracy. Today, millions are alienated from the formal economy, their hopes and expectations unmet and perhaps unmeetable, while a small minority enjoys the fruits of the economy.

The rest live in poverty, while many have seen their families ravaged by a ghastly epidemic.

This is the core of the argument: that our history, our broken homes, our sclerotic labour markets have driven an angry, impoverished fraction of South Africans into a life of crime. Violence, from this point of view, might be seen as a gauge of the injustices and cruelties of the past and present. And of the extent to which the process of social and economic transformation is still unfinished.

There is much truth in this story, so a white writer with no personal experience of the sharp end of apartheid ought be humble about these matters. Nevertheless, it’s worth asking some questions about this explanation and whether it is sufficient to explain the level of violence in South Africa and, in particular, its apparent exceptionality.

Consider, in this regard, that South Africans are not unique in the world in having gone through long periods of disenfranchisement, oppression and collective violence.

It is hard, in fact, to think of any society on earth that has suffered no period of massive trauma of some kind, with most having done so in the comparatively recent past. The Poles and the Chinese, the Koreans and the Rwandans, the French and Vietnamese and Russians and Algerians: pretty much every nation on the planet spent some portion of the twentieth century on its knees, the victim of catastrophic violence directed by local tyrants or foreign overlords. And yet very few countries that have emerged from their torments have levels of violence as high as ours.

A similar point can be made about the impact of present day socio-economic conditions on crime levels. Far too many South Africans live lives of misery and desperation. The wretchedness of their conditions, so the argument goes, means that many live lives whose contours create resentment and rage that is sometimes discharged in acts of violence, most of which are directed at the people nearest to them.

One problem with this view is that many of our poorest areas are also among our safest. Another is that there is not as much support for the proposition that poverty causes crime in the international criminological literature as you might expect. This may be because crime statistics from the developing world are hopelessly recorded and reported, but most countries that are poorer than South Africa seem to be less violent.

By contrast to the lack of consensus about the links between poverty and crime, there is a much stronger conviction among academics that inequality causes crime; that the differences between what the rich and poor earn matters more than how poor the poor are. Some of the data used to support this consensus is of dubious quality, but the result is reasonably robust and, in its own way, intuitively plausible: inequality may breed resentment, which generates rage.

For these reasons, inequality is frequently identified as a major cause of crime in South Africa, because, as almost everyone knows, our Gini coefficient – the standard measure of inequality – is among the worst in the world. “Aha!” you can almost hear criminologists exclaim, “That’s why we’re so plagued by criminality.” If we are one of the most unequal societies in the world, we should expect to have the highest rates of crime, too.

But there’s a problem.

The Gini coefficient is a measure of income inequality. It measures how concentrated income is in the hands of those who earn the most. By this measure, South Africa is one of the most unequal societies in the world. But, by Third World standards, South Africa is also an exceptionally well-developed welfare state. In fact, we stand apart from many – even, most – developing countries in that public expenditure actually ameliorates inequality rather than worsening it. In South Africa, after you factor in the tax that high-income earners pay and the benefits that the poor receive from government, inequality actually falls. This is quite different from many other developing countries where the rich pay no taxes and governments provide no services.

The inequality-causes-crime argument, therefore, needs some qualification. One way to do this might be to argue that our welfare state is new and so the reduction in inequality it has helped to effect has not yet reduced the impact of past inequality.

Another approach might be to focus on asset inequality rather than income inequality. A third response – and perhaps the most plausible – is that it’s not inequality per se that causes crime, but the gap between the poverty of the majority and the promises – both implicit and explicit – that democracy would alleviate this.

The failure to do so, and, worse, the failure even to create viable, plausible routes out of poverty, has created a profound, unshakable sense of exclusion and marginalisation, with rage as its side effect.

Inequality and exclusion matter, then, but do they matter enough to explain the high level of violence with which we live? If you think they do, ask yourself this question: why is it that in the mid-1970s, at the height of apartheid and at a time when levels of exclusion and marginalisation can only have been higher than they are now, the number of murders committed every year was about two-thirds lower than the 19,000 committed in 2009? Why is it that statistics from the early 1960s, when exclusion and marginalisation can only have been higher than they are today, suggest that fewer than 400 murders were committed every year?

Even if there is substantial undercounting in both sets of historical figures, they must surely raise doubts about the easy linkage of exclusion and marginalisation to levels of violence. That doesn’t mean that exclusion and marginalisation aren’t critically important – they are. DM

This is an edited extract from the opinion piece titled Crime and policing: How we got it wrong by Antony Altbeker.

Altbeker’s full opinion is published in Opinion Pieces by South African Thought Leaders. A collection of critical reflections on contemporary South African society edited by veteran journalist Max du Preez, Opinion Pieces by South African Thought Leaders includes contributions by Njabulo Ndebele, Neville Alexander, Jonathan Jansen, and Carmel Rickard among others.

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