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15 December 2017 20:08 (South Africa)
Opinionista Sisonke Msimang

Caught between the devil and the deep blue sea: A nation beholden to criminals

  • Sisonke Msimang
    sisonke-new-photo-02.jpg
    Sisonke Msimang

    Sisonke Msimang is currently working on a book about belonging and identity. She tweets @sisonkemsimang.

South Africans are caught between forgiving violence because we understand that the divides in our society are unsustainable, and abhorring violence because we fear that ours will be the next throats to be slit.

Some people are born empathetic. I was not. I never cried for the losses of strangers until I became a mother. Then it seemed, each time I opened the paper, that I might never stop crying. When Anene Booysens was raped and murdered I imagined her as my child and I thought there would be no end to my tears. Tougher and shrewder commentators than I suggested that outrage and grief would not bring her back. They suggested that tears made the crier feel good but didn’t change anything. They were right, of course, but their correctness didn’t stop my tears.

Last week I was teary again. I sat in a café with two colleagues, blinking foolishly as we spoke about the death of little Taegrin Morris. Embarrassed, I asked if we vould change the subject. My colleagues were probably a bit baffled that a seemingly self-possessed grown woman was so inexplicably close to tears. Graciously, they agreed that we turn our attention to other matters.
But because it is impossible to talk about one violent death in South Africa without speaking of another, we didn’t change the subject. We didn’t mention Taegrin again, but we spoke gingerly around his ghost.

Huddled in conversation in a chic Cape Town eatery we spoke – incongruously - of murder and mayhem. We spoke in the kind of heart-wrenching detail that makes all tales of loss unbearable to listen to and impossible to ignore. One of us told the story of his dead brother-in-law, killed on New Year’s Eve, 2014.

Perhaps because of the weirdness of my near tears, or because the death of a child makes us vulnerable in ways that can’t quite be quantified, he pulled out his phone and we looked at pictures of the murdered man taken literally seconds before he was shot. As the clock struck midnight, ringing in the New Year, his family had gazed at the camera, all of them smiling happily. He wasn’t smiling in the picture. His image stared at us, his head turned as he looked distractedly off to the side. He was looking away from the flash of the camera, peering into the midnight darkness. He had just noticed his assailants moving in the shadows.

There he stood, alive on the iPhone; alert and irrevocably faced with minutes to live. And  there I sat, horrified, my thoughts jumbled nonsense, petrified that the loss of his life could just have easily been the loss of my husband’s, my father’s, my child’s.

It is only possible to be haunted by the death of a stranger when you are convinced that he could have been you or one of yours. Perhaps this is why South Africans are obsessed with crime. It looms large because although it disproportionately affects poor black people, it also affects enough middle-class people for it to have become a ‘national question’. It looms larger still in our collective imagination as something that is done by the oppressed to the oppressors. This is false, of course – criminals come from all walks of life – but the violence ‘the nation’ fears erupts from the poor and the downtrodden and finds its targets amongst the guilty and the rich.

Indeed, as Johnny Steinberg suggests, crime is not just crime. In The Number, Steinberg suggests that “the very idea of banditry has always been a deeply unsettling phenomenon; it tampers with the boundary between acquisitive crime and political nobility; it hovers ambivalently between an aspiration to social equality and an anti-social violence…”

In other words, South Africans are caught between forgiving crime and violence because we understand that the divides in our society are unsustainable, and abhorring violence because we fear that ours will be the next throat to be slit.

We worry that crime comes from the pathological need for historical vengeance. And because the national questions of race and reconciliation have yet to be resolved, we secretly forgive one another even the most heinous of crimes because we recognise that Apartheid did a number on us all, and that there is much unfinished business. The question of course is how long this business can remain an agenda item that we never manage to address.

Although it is not, South Africa has been described as the rape capital of the world. Sixty-four thousand rapes were reported to the police. In the US – whose population is seven times bigger than ours, that figure stood at 90,000 rapes last year. Our murder rate is four-and-a-half times the global average and too many of those killed are kids: three children were murdered every day in this country last year.

We are told that things are getting better. Official figures from the South African Police Service (SAPS) indicate that the murder rate has dropped by half in the last twenty years. Theoretically, then, we are a far safer society today than we were at the end of Apartheid.

The problem is that few South Africans actually believe this. If you ask most South Africans – regardless of race – if one of the dividends of democracy has been increased physical freedom, they are likely to answer ‘no’.

Although crime has consistently decreased, surveys regarding the perceptions of crime show that people don’t believe this to be the case. South Africans feel unsafe, even though they are ostensibly living with less crime. This lag between the experience of crime and the perception of it is a global phenomenon, but in our context it feels more deeply embedded in our body politic.

Some people argue that government statistics do not reflect the truth; that crime is not decreasing and that people sense this through the daily experiences of assault that confront them wherever they go.

This is unlikely. Even discounting the possibility of state manipulation of police figures, experts on crime agree that violence is no longer at the levels experienced in the early 1990s. In part this was to be expected. The scale of violence would have been difficult to sustain outside a conflict zone.

So there is no question that – at least to some degree - crime has decreased. The question then becomes why, regardless of this decline, so many South Africans, across race and class lines, continue to feel so physically insecure?

The obvious answer is that violence in South Africa signifies a deeper malaise. It operates as a stand-in for declining levels of trust in those who we thought had liberated us forever more, and to a large degree it serves as a foil, a way for those who are wealthy and have maintained the economic status quo to avoid culpability for their financial sins.

In contemporary South Africa rage is our lingua franca. It increasingly accents the exchanges between the Freedom Fighters and the Comrades and it has become the clarion call of the disaffected. Violence serves as the battle cry of both the haves and the have-nots. It has become the currency for power - invoked to denote both political radicalism and economic might. We are a nation beholden to criminals; we hate them and yet we cannot ignore the contexts that create them.

We are caught, it seems, between the devil and the deep blue sea. DM

  • Sisonke Msimang
    sisonke-new-photo-02.jpg
    Sisonke Msimang

    Sisonke Msimang is currently working on a book about belonging and identity. She tweets @sisonkemsimang.

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