I refuse to accept believe that South Africans are inherently violent. What I do believe, is that before we point the finger of blame, we have to more carefully understand what it is to be the law- abiding citizens we so often unquestioningly lay claim to being.
A few years ago I used to receive emails from a former work colleague who had left South Africa during the Apartheid years and remained in Canada after we became a democracy. The emails used to point out all the things that were wrong with South Africa and would highlight just about every criminal incident happening in our country.
I suspected that this acquaintance (I cannot call him a friend) compiled these emails and sent them out to a wide database as a way of justifying his decision not to return to South Africa to help us build our country and celebrate our freedom.
I dismissed most of his emails even though I never requested that he stop sending them to me, because I believe in hearing people’s views, especially those that are different to mine.
It was easy to dismiss the emails because the crimes that were pointed out were not really horrendous and one could associate them with the growing pains of a democracy.
It is not so easy to dismiss the South Africa crimes that have made the headlines around the world in the past few weeks.
One cannot dismiss the brutal murder of Anene Booysen or the killing of model Reeva Steenkamp by her boyfriend, Olympic athlete Oscar Pistorius. One can certainly not dismiss the horrific incident in Daveyton where police dragged a Mozambican man, Mido Macie, behind a police van and then beat him to death. This incident, coming so soon after the Marikana massacre, does not give one much confidence in the police.
I have to confess that one of the many hats I wear is as a member of the board of trustees of Brand South Africa, which is tasked with marketing a positive image of South Africa internationally. However, I do not write in that capacity, but in my capacity as a patriotic South African and, I suppose, most importantly, in my capacity as a father of three young women. As a parent, I fear for their safety every day.
I also write as someone who refuses to believe that South Africans are inherently violent, despite the violent nature of the high-profile incidents I have mentioned above. In many ways these incidents are but the tip of the iceberg.
As someone who spent my formative years in Hanover Park, one of the most depressed townships in South Africa, where young people who do not end up in gangs are considered lucky, I have experienced violence all my life.
I saw somebody being killed for the first time in Hanover Park when I must have been about 10 or 11 years old. It was considered a normal incident for a Saturday afternoon in Hanover Park when I saw a gangster being hacked to dead by rival gang members. It was almost like watching television from the window of our flat.
I remember spending a lot of my young life running through the streets of Hanover Park because, if you walked, it was easy for the gangsters to catch you. And the gangsters were everywhere. It seemed like every block of flats had its own gang.
I still don’t know why I did not become a gangster. I suppose I was lucky.
The strange thing about Hanover Park is that the majority of people considered themselves to be law-abiding citizens, but they all became tainted by this perception of the township being gang-infested. Yet, in my opinion, those who consider themselves to be law-abiding did not do enough to challenge this perception and change the reality on the ground.
One could argue much the same about South Africa. By far the vast majority of South Africans consider themselves to be law-abiding and we need to jointly find ways of changing the perception of South Africa as a violent, unruly country.
But it is not only about changing the perception. It is also about changing the reality.
And it should start with making sure that we are indeed law-abiding. For instance, many of the gangsters survive in a place like Hanover Park because they know that no one will ever testify against them, because everyone is too scared. They also know that they have a ready market for the drugs and stolen goods they peddle.
Getting rid of a drug addiction is very difficult, but refusing to buy stolen goods is easier. If there is no market, it is an industry that will die out. This of course does not only apply to Hanover Park but the whole of South Africa.
Every day I see people speaking on their cellphones while driving and, more often than not, I see drivers chucking burning cigarette butts out of their car windows. There is a part of Main Road, Rondebosch, in Cape Town, where cars triple-park on a daily basis, often blocking the road for others.
These might seem like silly things to relate to the violence in our society, but I believe that violence is partly inspired by the transgressors’ belief that they will not be caught, and if they are caught, they will not be prosecuted. If they are prosecuted, they believe they will not be sent to jail, and if they are sent to jail, they believe that they will not remain inside for long.
The reason many people refuse to testify against criminals in a place like Hanover Park is because they feel that, despite their testimony, the criminals will walk free and then their lives will be in danger.
The criminal justice system in South Africa needs to be jacked up quite seriously to make sure that people who commit crimes, violent or otherwise, will face the consequences. And by this I don’t mean that they should bring back the death penalty. We have enough laws to make sure that crime can be contained. We must just implement the laws properly.
But just because the criminal justice system is lacking does not mean that we should not have respect for it. We need to obey laws, no matter how small, so that being law abiding in the true sense of the word will become a part of our culture.
Yes, we might not be able to stop the next big violent crime to make international headlines, but we might be able to make sure that these crimes become less frequent and maybe even less violent.
Many of us who were involved in the struggle against Apartheid thought that the struggle ended once the ANC was unbanned and Nelson Mandela was released. The struggle continues to this day, but it is now a struggle to build a new society where all of us will feel like we are really free. We cannot feel free in a violent country. DM
Ryland Fisher has more than 30 years of experience in the media industry as an editor, journalist, columnist, author, senior manager and executive. Among his media assignments were as Editor of the Cape Times and The New Age and as assistant editor at the Sunday Times.Fisher is the author of Race (published 2007), a book dealing with some of the issues related to race and racism in post-apartheid South Africa. His first book, Making the Media Work for You (2002), provided insights into the media industry in South Africa. He is executive chairperson of the Cape Town Festival, which he initiated while editor of the Cape Times in 1999 as part of the One City Many Cultures project. He also runs a consultancy focusing on media and social cohesion.