While hosting a slot on Cape Talk’s afternoon drive show recently, writer and legendary broadcaster Mike Wills noted the growing popularity of true crime streaming series and podcasts across the world.
Wills had been prompted to probe specifically the phenomenon of the indisputably high numbers of women who form the core audience for the genre after reading bestselling author and journalist Nancy Jo Sales’s take on the issue in a column for The Guardian on 5 July.
Sales has a theory that the millions of women across the world who watch do so to flush out psychos and malevolent predators in a time of increased threat on social media and dating apps.
On Wills’s show, Professor Renata Schoeman, the head of healthcare leadership at the Stellenbosch Business School, said women binged on crime series often because we are able to associate and relate to the victims.
“You can get tips from these series, podcasts and books,” Schoeman said. “In that way women begin to safeguard themselves against larger societal issues in terms of a breakdown in trust.”
Wrote Sales: “Through consuming true crime content, studies say, women experience catharsis; they work out their fears about their own vulnerability and perhaps their rage about what has happened to other women as well. They see in true crime a source of education about how not to wind up a victim.”
South Africa is off the charts
In South Africa we don’t really have to make a series, although there are myriad fine documentaries and podcasts available locally, because we wake up each day to some fresh horror.
Thabo Bester, the Devilsdorp killer cult, South African Police Service cop Rosemary Ndlovu and her serial killing of family members to cash in on insurance. These stories are pap and milk to us.
Then we have the Senzo Meyiwa trial, itself a running soap opera featuring a cast of celebrities obfuscating along the way. The beloved footballer was shot dead a decade ago.
The daily broadcasts of the Zondo Commission of Inquiry into State Capture as well as suspended Public Protector Busisiwe Mkhwebane’s Section 194 impeachment inquiry are our real-time crime series – and we have no option but to binge.
What these critical broadcasts have done is unpack, in public and for the citizenry of South Africa, how the criminal mind works. How sly it is, how calculating, how boldly mendacious and how ruthlessly avaricious. How illusive the truth is. Blue collar, white collar, no collar: nobody does it better.
Which is why I prefer watching Australian crime series. We expect crime in South Africa, and violent crime. Somehow we understand it, as insane as that might sound. Crime in the US is just batshit crazy – mass school shootings, taking people hostage, psychotic robocops primed to single out black men wearing hoodies, bombers…
And the latest from the land of the free is the ghastly “Gilgo Beach” serial killing of 11 people in New York a decade ago. Architect Rex Heuermann, living as a respectable father and husband, has just been nabbed for the murderous spree.
Crime in the UK is grim, taking place under grey, potbelly skies, with killers on the moors who live in tightly packed, besooted towns and suburbs or in mansions up the road. Then there are the mother and son who live in the shuttered house.
When it comes to real-life crime and violence, this author must confess to having spent many years working as a crime reporter in Cape Town in the 1980s. Have named it, seen it, done it, written about it, as have other journalists who cover this beat.
Distraction is required in this instance. But not too much. The diabolical, murderous and atavistic essence of crime, and how to thwart it, must be the foundation.
And so it was that the algorithm threw up Australian crime series and investigative programmes like the excellent 60 Minutes: Australia.
By coincidence, Wills happens to have been born in Australia but has lived in South Africa for a long time, though the accent is still faintly present.
Many of us have relatives and friends who have emigrated to Australia and are perfectly happy there. Some are ecstatic about how law-abiding a society it is. It is not a country that has particularly appealed personally – the accent at its broadest can sound like a hadedah using autotune if you have to listen long enough.
Both familiar and refreshing
As in South Africa, much of the crime and violence in Australia is interpersonal – people who know their victims one way or another, or who are linked either through family or business. The school principal, the pastor, the local grocer. The usual.
There are kidnappings, disappearances, wives killing husbands, husbands killing wives, scammers on the internet, suburban paedophile rings.
It was comforting to learn of construction cartels linked to politicians and city officials in that country. Also, the link to the ruthless ’Ndrangheta Mafia, a thriving crime organisation in Italy’s Calabria region that trafficks drugs, including cocaine from South Africa shipped over in some road digger machine.
We in South Africa know that where there is a criminal, a cartel or a syndicate of any kind, there are bound to be politicians, government officials and businessmen at the other end.
Take the recent case of Melbourne resident Mick Gatto, described by Sydney Morning Herald journalists Nick McKenzie and Richard Baker as “a gangster, an industrial mediator and charity fundraiser”.
Gatto, a former heavyweight boxer, has been exposed as just one cog in the criminal network of George Alex, a Queensland building industry tycoon.
The businessman’s partners over the years have included, write the journalists, “convicted criminals, such as killer and since-murdered Hells Angels enforcer Steve Mitrovic and the Hells Angels drug trafficker Peter Sidirourgos”.
Alex’s rise in business was “the nation’s most powerful example of all that is wrong with the building industry and how those meant to keep men such as Alex from its doors have failed to do so”, their investigation has exposed.
When I’m done with Australia, I am heading for Canada, and then after that maybe Belgium and then the Nordic regions. More blanche than noir. DM
Marianne Thamm is assistant editor of Daily Maverick.
This story first appeared in our weekly Daily Maverick 168 newspaper, which is available countrywide for R29.