Michael Francis
Michael Francis

Why are South Africans so violent?

I was challenged by a commentator (realpolitik) in my previous blog post to write as a social scientist ie provide some analysis of crime and criminality in South Africa. The problem with writing about crime and violence is that it is so pervasive — violence infuses everything.

Some examples:

The students at UKZN arranged protests on campus when they heard a residence was to be privatised. The responses were to toyi-toyi and threaten lecturers and students who did not wish to protest. The minute the protest began it was violent. What about the freedom not to protest?

Teachers go on strike and they threaten students who attend school.

Hospital staff go on strike and allow babies to die and medical doctors are threatened for trying to help people.

Rape or sexual assault has affected 1/3 of the female population. Follow the blue links for more appalling information about sex crimes.

And so on.

Nothing happens without violence. All protests and complaints are backed up by immediate threats of violence or real acts of violence. There is no middle ground or slow build-up. It feels to me as if something is broken in society that needs to be healed.

This violent society gets caught up in the obvious responses to crime. Electric fences, spikes and razor wire are all violent means of protection as are large aggressive dogs and armed-response units. All things I would use and condone, as a simple thief seems ready to kill for a few material possessions. The pervasive violence spills over into other things as well.

The way South Africans drive is an expression of this: running lights, road rage and running down pedestrians. It also comes through in the way we treat and respond to people.

Crime in general is always so simplistically analysed by the media and in general. It is often assumed that poverty creates crime, but that falls flat as there are many poor people who do not steal and entire countries, worse off than South Africa, which have far less property crimes.

Having that fall flat then leads to claims that it is the level of inequality in a country that creates crime. But again elites exist in every country and the masses do not just take all their stuff. So that is modified to say it is about levels of inequality coupled to the amount of inequality so if you have a large middle class and a large poverty-stricken class then crime will be high as seen in Brazil and South Africa. This idea seems to hold some water as the poor are interspersed with the middle class or at least squatting on the edges of the wealthier areas. But for me this analysis is still too crude and too simple to explain the violence that is linked to crime here. It also does not explain that most crime occurs within the poor communities.

I know that if someone jumps the fence and steals clothes or a bicycle one can easily point to poverty and opportunity and voila a little property crime. But how does one explain an 89-year-old woman who is tied up and gang raped and the thieves take a few thousand rand worth of goods? How does one explain one killing for a cellphone?

When I try to think through this I am reminded of my contradictory experiences in South Africa — between rural and urban and visits to the slums and so forth. I realise that no single model fits that can begin to explain the crime and the types of crime in South Africa.

So here are a few reasons — none of which are reasonable or should be seen as justification of the crimes.

Service delivery gets trotted as a reason for violent strikes and protests but the violence is still not explained. Some of this is easily seen as an expression of frustration due to years of empty or false promises, but also that violence works in South Africa. Violence has become so naturalised here that people believe it is right and fair to exercise violence to get what they want. And they get away with violence. They act with impunity as a mob and no one is penalised for appalling criminal behaviour. Intimidation, actual attacks and the very real threat of violence during protests makes them effective as the state often caves in to this pressure. The fact that it is socially acceptable to many is shocking.

All the protest and strikes I mentioned above start with violence. In most parts of the world strikes would never go to that level, ever. The most galling was hospital staff being threatened and patients dying as a result. How can that ever be acceptable? There of course is a history behind all this of horrific violence which was perpetuated under apartheid. Perhaps some of that explains why I found some rural communities peaceful, gentle places because they had just plodded along and never suffered the worst of apartheid, they just did their own thing.

And now for some unpopular things that people shy away from in their analysis of crime:

There are quite a few hate crimes committed in South Africa. When a white farmer is tied up, tortured and executed there can be no other explanation than some real serious hate. And this is a racial hatred. Similarly, when a black farm worker was beaten and thrown to the lions a few years ago that too is a race-based hate crime. By constructing that racial “other” as less than human or so different to you that you can dehumanise and kill them with little thought or guilt takes effort and is an extreme level of a common phenomenon in South Africa — nationalism.

Crude African nationalism, seen in the xenophobic attacks and continued threats against foreigners, is just racism by other name. This pervasive racism and racialism feeds into much of the violence and crime in South Africa. One can steal with impunity and commit horrific acts against those deemed different. The constant evocation of difference allows people to act as if they belong to different nations and that they shouldn’t care about their neighbours who might be slightly different.

I had reported on the robber in my garden in my previous blog post. What really struck me that night, as I ran around to all the neighbours and alerted them, was that most neighbours do not do this when it happens to them. A sense of community is broken between our fences and walls. But the worst part was that a neighbour’s domestic worker had told us that a man had run across her roof. She had known there was an intruder on the property and did nothing to alert anyone. She did not care. What does this say about humanity in this place?

But that is just one form of violence and crime found here. Another reason for the crime in South Africa is the way the liberation struggle played out in the townships and peri-urban areas. Entire communities were taught to disrespect the police and become ungovernable. This was very effective as part of the liberation struggle because entire townships were no-go areas for the police and were exposing the roots of violence needed to maintain apartheid.

These communities still need healing and demobilising form the past. The police are still seen as the enemy and still cannot police these areas. This in effect means gangs and thugs who can do as they please. This links to the service-delivery protest and comments on strikes above, where the only way to protest is to burn things, thrown things and hurt people. All of these things coincide in a cultural form which states that violence is acceptable and necessary.

In that climate all the simple property crimes explode into horrific acts of dehumanisation. A large part of the population does not care about the other part. There is a climate and culture of hostility and violence.

But I do not wish to overstate the racial aspects as most crime happens within the poor black population. I touched on the broken society from the past as well as dehumanising conditions in which people live, but here are other things at play here. The violent sex crimes points to some form of flawed African masculinity that has been created. An interesting article discusses the contradictions of this here. But it fails to be open about the violent consequences of that masculinity. People speak around this issue far too often. No one wants to openly say that the social gender dynamics are pretty shocking and messed up Rape has become a weapon of emasculated men whose social position has been usurped as women gain equality and are given the means to be self-supporting. The decline of migrant labour for men feeds into this, as does the gangsterism in areas. I have first-hand reports of ‘jack-rolling (gang rape) as an initiation into a gang in the Northern Cape. This same flawed masculinity leads to the rape of lesbians in Soweto and the rape of grandmothers and children. The sex/rape nexus becomes an expression of power or perhaps an actual lack of power in a broader sense.

And I know that Dave Harris and a few common commentators will label me as racist for this blog. And I challenge those to explain the level of rape within the townships as well as the extreme violence of the recent protests in other terms. I dismiss race as a meaningful category beyond a crude social form of othering that feeds into the violence. It is the interpersonal violence within communities that really needs to be explained and there is clearly something broken within these spaces. To deny that is to allow the continued rape and sexualised violence and generalised thuggery that exists.

And what is the way forward?

As much as I hate the police here, they need some teeth and some resources. This country would be completely unliveable if it was not for the private security companies. There needs to be an overhaul of the police and policing. I am thinking of cops on foot or on bicycles in communities. One rarely ever sees patrol cars patrolling. An active police presence on the streets coupled with the active prosecution of criminals. The demand for stolen goods needs to be stopped by imposing massive penalties on those found with stolen goods.

Demobilising the township community forums that used to be kangaroo courts and committed necklacing in the townships. No more community justice because that was part and parcel of the xenophobic attacks. These also provide insulation against prosecution and policing.

An end to apartheid-era categorisation and race-based policy and thinking. Race is a meaningless biological category and the continued use of it imbues the social meaning with weight and import it does not deserve. These boundaries need to be unpacked and dialogue across this gulf must begin earnestly and with honesty. The continued use of race continues the us-versus-them mentality that allows the violence to continue. This also feeds into the intra-racial violence and crime as not all Africans are given equality. This then points to the need for and end to nationalism, African or otherwise.

Better education must be provided. And the list goes on. Most of it is merely that South Africa must become a pluralistic society based on equality (not just in law) as well as a functioning society where social and political institutions work. This will take time and effort and must be based on reason and rationality, not emotion and cheap politics.

  • Robert Duigan

    South Africa is an alienating experience. We are violent because we are repressed, unfulfilled, powerless, disrespected by industry and government, unprotected, poor, subject to the outbursts of our fellows in the same situation, in a country with no unifying identity, in a land where every group’s identity is treated as poison by someone else; where everyone is denegrated for the language and culture of their birth, whether they are Afrikaans, Tsonga or Coloured, English or Zulu; where medicine is nonexistant or unreliable, police are a threat to personal safety, and nobody trusts anybody.

    And teleologically, we are headed for a dead end: if we made a turnaround, made the government into a social democracy to fix poor healthcare, crime and poverty, they would fail for lack of funds, or else become indebted to a foreign superpower, in which case, for purposes of business business interests of said power, we would be forced to depress wages and business taxes (same happens everywhere the IMF or China or America or Russia go). We are violent because we are living a bleak and frustrating life together, and the promise that democracy gave us makes the distance between our reality and our aspirations all the more poignant.

    Whether or not you are an optimist, it is a nauseating trip, because whether or not you believe its getting better, it still isn’t better yet, and we still have to bite that bullet every minute of every day.

    At least, that’s what think.

  • http://taurean2012hotmail.com Axl

    Cher Michel Francois
    I understand your viewpoint. Yet it is the viewpoint of a an outsider.
    I suggest you dig deeper than your your escapades from the Canadian winter and do some real fieldwork. The Drakensberg does not represent South African Society. A visit to the UCT dept of Anthropology and some insight into SA History reading including colonisation, the Mfecane, trade unions and Apartheid (how could we forget) would prove most fruitful. In fact informal “chatting” to everyday folk also gives one useful insight into their lives and their views as to why SA has its problems.

  • X Cepting

    I think you have it right. Being a five times victim of theft, violent and peaceful, I have obviously spend a lot of time thinking about the whys.

    Every time it comes down to the law failing. I have booby-trapped my property after the last burglary and honestly do not care if the next person gets hurt. People who hurt eventually start hurting back. My frustration with the police’s inability to do their job properly adds to my violent feelings. I have no respect left for the bunch in my neighbourhood who might as well not be there, for the effectiveness they have in dealing with crime. Then, I saw a video on various police forces around the world and it struck me, South African police are the rudest and most violent of all. I cringed as I watched a policemen arrest a guy whilst swearing at him non-stop, keeping in mind this was seen by Americans, Germans, etc. whose police are feared but unfailingly polite and dignified.

    I do not blame the actual police on the ground. We have gone looking elsewhere for world-standard methods of doing that turned out ill-advised (OBE), but in this particular case it might not be a bad idea to go and see why other country’s police get a lot more respect from their population than ours do. These are the custodians of the law, why would people respect the law if they cannot respect the custodians?

  • StevieWonder

    It so often takes an outsider to weigh the evidence without flogging a position or having to preserve false perceptions (rainbows n stuff). While violence in deprived areas is at horrific levels, the language of violence is often used in ‘polite’ white middle class society particularly when some alcohol is involved. The language often rotates around (under the guise of humour) the degradation of women in general and how stupid black people are, but they have also been brutalised emotionally in many ways, nationalism does this. Black people being more assertive, many whites cannot handle this emotionally as they dont’ to this day quite accept them as fully human. Blacks understand this at an overt and subliminal level, hence the torture and murder of many whites on farms. Ask the average white what he thinks transformation should involve, ask a black for his views – well its a huge gap. Warning – their will be many who criticise your right to comment as a Canadian – of course if you were a Brit you would be dead!

  • Arelle Whitey

    We can say that under the deliberate foment of violence – apartheid – violence against the oppressor naturally became endemic, violence within townships was horrific, and both ‘normalized’ across society once the Group Areas Act was abolished. And movies, TV & other media (incl. advertising!) have normalized violence in the home and society as a whole. None of this really matters now: We are all criminals, and will be till we consciously stop.

    This subjective (racist: ‘African Masculinity’?! That’s a violent bias) article misses the critical fact that we are a criminal society. Every one who ‘bends’ a rule; ‘thumps’ someone; ‘tweaks’ insurance claims; ‘pinches’ stationery from work; ‘fibs'; speeds; drives badly (even once); abuses disabled bays or loading zones; uses a cellphone while driving; doesn’t buckle-up; ‘takes advantage'; bribes; ‘compromises’ principles for the sake of ‘ease’ or ‘peace'; covers-up for friends or relatives; … the list is endless … is a criminal. No one committing any of these acts considers the criminality of this behavior. We ‘justify’ it. Patrons, unseated from illegal restaurant tables on a suburban pavement, railed against police for “not focusing on Real Crime.” So some crime is acceptable to them.

    If we want crime to stop we must all stop being criminals. If we want violence to stop we must stop it. If we want people to help us when we scream for help, we must be willing to risk dying for them when they scream. We make our own choices. We create our society. Own it.

  • Rod of Sydney

    When there are few consequences violences works and crime pays. If your powerless position means no status, no respect and no nookie; you gain the aforementioned in a way that does work.

    Take away the possessions, society respect, prospects and nookiefriend of the biggest liberal pacifist and slowly reward him/her for every frustrated act of hitting out and yes, he/she will morph. It also works the other way.

  • OneFlew

    Are we not at risk of implicitly positing a normal (non-violent) human condition, any departure from which requires an explanation?

  • OneFlew

    Are we not at risk of implicitly positing a ‘normal’ (non-violent) human condition, any departure from which then requires an explanation? And do we not then trot out too much folk wisdom and spurious analysis to explain this alleged aberration?

    What if there is really no ‘natural’ level of violence and therefore no ‘abnormality’? What if it’s all just a matter of normative behaviour (like bathing, burning witches or wearing denim) which has no deeper set of causes than that it’s the convention?

    How do we then become what we aspire to, viz. a country with a Western European murder rate?

  • baldev singh

    The extent and various reasons given for the violence are,for the most part not far from the mark. However, while we may pay lip service to it–we cannot adequately appreciate that SA’s history and its now its very fabric is steeped in violence. It is not new!!!! It existed all around us and manifested itself in a myriad of forms under Apartheid—even while the Nationalized Police Jackboot kept a lid on things and assisted mightily in further inculcating a demeaned sense of self and others. Without a new realization of self worth it is difficult to grow empathy. Where are the National Role Models for the young? Why do we not hear more –or anything at all–about a National Objective to create a future for all. How can Hope live in the heads of the deprived when those that Have act like the depraved? “This place is messed up, I’ve got mine, little else matters!” I look down the road and it is long and tortutous but when I look back, I see it was little different.

  • Bazza

    Violence pervades SA society. It is a common thread, quite often we read of extreme brutality leading to loss of life where nothing at all is stolen.

    What is the reason for this ?

    It is not an obvious skin color issue, even in the shambles of racist Zimbabwe we do not see such a level of extreme violence and it is certainly not present in the majority of African countries.

    There appears to be some deeep seated issues of resentment , hatred and a lust for revenge amongst South Africans and it is not simply directed between racial groups , you see this in the violence directed towards women from men of the same racial grouping.

    This atmosphere of hatred does not bode well for a peaceful SA , I think we are in for some very trying times.

  • Peter

    What ever happened to the simple cheap police box as seen in cities like Tokyo?! It’s placed at all strategic points of activity as mini satellite stations. Police are also much more part of the community, doing real community service while patrolling on foot, scooters, bicycles.
    Who hasn’t been to a South African police station to find cops chatting or lazing around in the back office, far away from the community they should serve.
    How often do people just not bother and does crime go unreported with such a police force?

  • Larry Lachman

    I started my business career selling t-shirts out of the boot of my car. I targeted mostly poor communities and would park on a conspicuous corner, open my boot and lay out my hangers on the boot lid and rail. In the western Cape, Coloured people were inevitably drunk by 3pm and if men were not publicly laying into their wives and girlfriends on stoeps and verrandas, then a street brawl would be in the making involving several households.

    Conclusion. Some people cannot handle alcohol. My take is that certain ethnic groups, (particularly indigenous populations that do not have centuries of alcohol intake and management in their DNA), cannot avoid violent confrontation when imbibing past a certain point.

    My other observation is ‘bloodletting’ for food. Cutting a chickens neck, or slaughtering a pig or cow will inure some to finding similar actions against fellow human beings as a solution to anger.

    The poor dog gets the worst end of it.

  • andrew

    I think that people of South Africa have lost respect. Take for instance the pedestrian who saunters across the road almost challenging the motorist to run him over. It creates a rage in the motorist and next time charges an innocent pedestrian. We have lost respect for our leaders as they have not earned or deserve our respect with their lavish and greedy lifestyles. The disdainful 10 car cavalcades. Eventually is peters down to the masses in their respect for each other and life becomes cheap. Perhaps it was always there but the media broadcasts it more successfully hence the need to be even more vigilent.

  • Peter Joffe

    Violence is a crime. In South Africa as you rightly say violence is a means to an end and goes unpunished.
    Without getting into philosophical reasons for the violence, it is either right or it is wrong and the law says its wrong as do all our hopefully civilised values.
    Violence in strikes and demonstrations go unpunished and becomes nothing more than terrorism.
    Crime and terrorism pay in South Africa. “It’s part of our Culture” and the beginning of a fascist society.

  • Castro

    It seems all that’s violent to you is townships, why are you not talking about violence in suburbs? Or is it racist disguise to portray township dwellers(blacks) as naturally criminal? Your article sucks and seems to be a personal vendetta against a black man. Get a life agent

  • Solomon

    However valid the points raised here may be, I don’t see anything new in this article to explain the causes of violence in SA society – apartheid, esmasculation, the race issue, all of those have been written about before.
    I think one of the responses hones in more accurately on the issue – the powerlessness felt by many marginalised poor South Africans. The effects of black poverty – largely a legacy of apartheid – is underestimated, I feel. It’s not sufficient to say that not ALL poor people turn to crime since, as the cliche goes, different individuals respond differently to situations, especially under extreme duress.
    The point about other countries where poverty is as extreme as SA is valid, though. I think for these issues truly to be understood requires a far more comprehensive study, comprised of a broad spectrum of anecdotes and statistics.

  • Benzol

    @Larry: “In the western Cape, Coloured people were inevitably drunk by 3pm…..”

    “Foetal Alcohol Syndrome or FAS is the most common preventable form of intellectual disability in the world and yet it is a serious public health problem in the Western Cape.”
    (ref: http://www.capegateway.gov.za/eng/directories/services/11504/6425)

    Similar situations occurred in other parts of the world (Indians in the US).

    The violence, associated with this phenomenon, is the result of the addiction not a character treat. The addiction is “inherited”.

    “My take is that certain ethnic groups…….”
    FAS exists in all ethnic groups as it is continued from mother to child through generations.

    To “cure” large population groups from FAS would require a similar approach as to HIV/AIDS.


    Secondly, it aims to diagnose and treat affected children. Apart from physical abnormalities, children with FAS can also have neurological, behavioural, and learning problems. Programmes are currently being developed to identify and assist high-risk mothers and to diagnose children with FAS as early as possible. Although many of these children experience learning problems, stimulation and management programmes are being developed to assist parents and caregivers. Should a parent/caregiver or teacher be worried about a child, the child can be taken to the nearest clinic from where the child will be referred to the most appropriate service for further assessment.” (ref: see above ref)

    Not a simple “bad people” – put them in jail thing.

  • Gail

    Thank you for an interesting topic. I am 61 and so was born in the same year as apartheid in Africa of a socalled privileged family. I have given the subjectof violence much thought since I was very young and have come to the following conclusion. Long before white met black in Africa we were all one colour and we learned that Africa is treacherous in terms of providing for it’s people. Diseases amongst animals which spread to people, carnivorous animals etc kept populations down. Water is essential to life and people followed water sources and settled from time to time and civilisations grew until the land could not sustain them or disputes arose and so a group would decide to migrate. Those who stayed adapted and lived with nature while those who survived journeys further afield had to adapt to very different conditions where water was abundant but frozen. The Northern hemisphere emigrants at some point became a cargo socity because of climatic conditions. They had to plan ahead. In Africa those who remained did not have to do this. They lived with abundant food but little water and more temperate weather. If they found gold well it was of no real value except as ornamentation. Life was about survival of the fittest and the Northern and Southern Hemisphere developed differently. I’m not sure that science is not to blame for all our ills. I mean knowledge isn’t always good if men have it.Overpopulation is key!

  • http://thoughtleader.co.za/michaelfrancis Michael Francis

    Axl – I do extensive fieldwork across South Africa and actually lived here from Jan 2002 until 2007 then left for 18 months then returned for 2 years and then left last September. I started a project on farm murders but the topic was too much at the time and some real sick stuff occurred where I was going to do work so I left off and now work with San in the Kalahari on various issues. Sometimes the violence gets too much and I think of repositioning myself to Botswana for peace of mind among other academic reasons.

    Your notes about “colonisation, the Mfecane, trade unions and Apartheid” as being useful – well of course they would be. I have written about some of the precolonial and colonial peoples of KZN and am fully aware of the impact of migrant labour on communities, and that is in fact a large part of the broken family structures in some places where 80% of men leave or are gone most of the year. That feeds into domestic violence, prostitution (AIDS of course). I think the Mfecane is overstated for a variety of academic reasons as is Shaka’s role. Perhaps you wish to read my actual academic papers?

    And in terms of fieldwork experiences I am sure my research has put me in more places than most South Africans have been. So I do not feel it is inadequate. I spend more time in the field than the classroom right now.

  • Siobhan

    I had a conversation with a man who was engaged by my landlord to do some work in the rental house I live in. About ten days into the job I began to notice that items were going missing. I did nothing at first (a mistake), but after the fourth instance of something just ‘disappearing’, I sat down with the man whilst he was eating his lunch and asked him to please let me know if happened to see any of the items that were missing. He said I must have mis-placed them and I said, possibly, but let me know if you find anything in the course of your work.

    Later that day a neighbour told me someone had stolen R200 from her wallet and as the workman was the only one on the property at the time, she suspected him.

    I decided to try again with him so I asked what happens to people in his community who steal things. “We kill them”, he said cooly. “Why?”, I asked. “Why not just ask for the items back or say if the items should happen to turn up, I’d be inclined to forget the incident–unless it happened again.” He had no answer to that other than: “That is what my people do, we kill thieves.” I asked, what about rapists? “Same. We kill.”
    And murderers? “We kill them.”

    If all crimes are punished the same way, one might as well steal, rape and kill. Pathological society results.

  • hilly

    all humans are capable of incredible violence. SA exposes this through the tolerance of anarchy, the government is not capable of defining clear lines as to what is responsible behaviour, resulting in ‘kangeroo courts’ down to an individual level. The general lack of any form of ‘the ten commandments’ makes people dream up their individual concepts of justice, which is not community based. Africa suffers this more than other continents because of the distances between communities as well as the nomadic traditions of these communities. But we are no different to any advanced society in the human side of things.

  • Geraldo

    Michael, I was prepared to give some credence to your analysis of the situation, but that was before I came across the astounding bigotry underlying your statement, “Race is a meaningless biological category..”

    If that were the case it means the crucial element giving rise to violence cannot be taken into account, and here I speak of the powerlessness that comes of being unable to marshall one’s thoughts, and therefore express an opinion. Now ally that statement with the proven statistic that you should be familiar with as a social anthropologist, to the effect that South Africa has an average IQ of 72. Being an average means that nigh on 50% of the population will be below that figure.

    Need more be said?

  • Coen B

    a beautiful & unique watch was given as a birthday present. some years later it started loosing time. Eventually it stopped working.

    thanks for caring enough to study and comment on the challenges facing SA. My family lives in exile in the UK and will always retain patriotic nostalgic affection for our sunny birthland. All of our extended family still live there, yet reluctantly we’ve chosen to offer our kids a better future abroad.
    Yes I accept that those jumping ship are at blame too for not staying on board and mending the ship. Guilty as charged. But when faced with deciding the best future for my kids i have to make touch choices – and recent trends in SA has been horrid.
    It is regrettable to see things fall apart: no healthy competition from sizeable opposition party, decline in public sector responsibility/ownership/ACCOUNTABILITY, sliding education and health care standards, violent crime going unpunished, desperately vulnerable and uneducated masses tricked by slick politicians wooing their favour with radical election pledges, alienating of foreign investment in mining sector, repression of media freedom, the list goes on.
    Perhaps what scares me most is reading blog responses on news24.co.za – the most violent verbal assaults, highly vexed, superlatively opiniated, inferiorly educated….truly frightening prospect of living in a society where humanity and respect is long gone.

    looking at that old pocket watch it still pleases and fond memories well a tear in the eye. But alas it remains only a broken watch.

  • http://blogroid.wordpress.com blogroid

    Was this a disingenuous piece? Perhaps the question should be why are human beings so violent towards each other and why are we a dramatically above average violent place.

    Firstly you ignore a few realities. As an offshore foreigner you present useful insights without necessarily viewing them holistically.

    We are a post revolutionary society. The long awaited day arrived but we were soon habituated to the fact that we could now sit anywhere we could afford on the train. The shift to cash as the social determinant rather than complexion raises huge issues: you didn’t have to do anything when you were oppressed black to be oppressed… blackness was its own qualification.

    In a market driven economy, however effort counts whether it’s the effort of creating patronage, and hence a cronyist access to cash; or the quaintly western view that other forms of effort are more appropriate, it’s still effort; and that raises new challenges and an awareness for many of their absolute impotence.

    And this is normal. Transitional medieval Europe countries had murder rates quite comparable to ours for instance. France remained a violent society for most of the century following their famed Guillotine fuelled revolution albeit on a continually declining curve.

    Taking my own neighbourhood as a for instance relative to your argument: In 1996 we had more than a 1000 reported murders. Now even if the recently released numbers were only 10% of reality, they would still have been only 10% of that figure.


  • Shaman sans Frontieres

    Thank you Michael Francis. An articulate and impressive overview, by an outsider, of the state of things. It is a grim picture.

    It runs deep into a South African vernacular – it is heard in the way we speak – loud, aggressive, and crude, even in friendship. It is in our humour, vulgar, racist, obscene at times, and usually cynical. It is in our body language – flinching or flexing. I was a conscript in the old SA army and I’ll never forget the violence of the psyche, the aggressive vulgarity, the ease of identification of the ‘enemy’ way beyond the actual strategic enemy of the border war.

    Yiza Moya!

  • http://hismastersvoice.wordpress.com The Creator

    An interesting opening which eventually deteriorates into “we need more apartheid-style police”, “keep the people out of law enforcement because they don’t know what it’s about” and “race doesn’t exist” (which doesn’t mean what it says it means, since the author obviously knows better).

    Dave Harris hasn’t commented yet because mocking this kind of fatuous apartheid-style authoritarianism isn’t enough of a challenge.

  • Perry Curling-Hope

    Michael, the basis of this argument is critically flawed.

    It assumes that one must always seek a ‘cause’ for behavior and seek such causes external to the individual; that people only respond and react to their environment; that persons do not initiate in accordance with their own volition.

    It denies the principle of human free will, that persons exercise choices; that they are singularly responsible for both those choices and their consequences, and that blame and responsibility cannot simply be shifted to persons outside of the individual as a matter of convenience.

    ‘See what you MADE me do!’ simply does not cut it outside childish squabbles and certainly not within law and civil society.

    It is a popular viewpoint with those who would be perpetual apologists for unacceptable behavior when it’s time for politicking and according blame to ‘groups’ past and present, when individual members of such arbitrarily denominated ‘groups’ have no connection to the perpetration of violence.

    Violent expression cannot be objectively tied to all things external to the individual, that such behavior is ‘made’ by the environment, and that a violent individual would turn out totally different under different external circumstances.

    As you pointed out, different individuals do not all resort to violence when exposed to the same circumstances, and some who enjoy wealth, power and privilege are as brutal, hateful and bigoted as any, without due ‘cause’.

    A lot of people just ain’t nice, and getting what they want won’t necessarily make them any

  • http://thoughtleader.co.za/michaelfrancis Michael Francis

    @Castro – Please do read the entire article as I do touch on rural violence, generalised violence, road rage, farm murders (labourers and farmers) etc. My concern with the overwhelming violence is that it is something that affects poor black women most. There is violence in the suburbs but it is mitigated by burglar bars and armed guards. Pretending that it is not a real issue is a form of symbolic violence as it means it is not being addressed properly. Why deny the crime in the townships? Why deny the very real problems facing South Africa/Africans?

  • http://thoughtleader.co.za/michaelfrancis Michael Francis

    @Benzol – Fetal alcohol Syndrome has been linked to crime and criminality in Canada among Aboriginal communities. One study reported 60% of people in prison exhibited signs or symptoms of FAS.

    The associated alcoholism creates a feedback loop where the poverty is replicated and the social disintegration is increased. How does one break that? Some Aboriginal communities have gone so far as to ban alcohol in entire communities.

    I would wonder about the a/effects of FAS in South Africa as my perceptions of African townships and rural spaces was that heavy boozing among girls was not as prevalent and in traditional spaces outright disapproved of. Some townships had some crazy shebeens for men and women but it did not strike me the way it does in certain Canadian Aboriginal communities where the entire town over the age of 13 drinks hard.

  • Benzol

    @Siobhan: ………..I asked, what about rapists? “Same. We kill.” And murderers? “We kill them.”

    Is that not precisely the same kind of recommendation to our police force???

    The philosophy behind it? A dead criminal cannot do it again; a criminal behind bars can….!!

    where do we go from here????

  • Maddog

    Excellent piece. I’ve returned to South Africa after having lived across Europe for 10 years. I returned with a ‘first world’ European mindset of trying to ‘understand’ the criminal and keen as a bunny to be part of this new nation. After 4 years and my fair share of violent occurences, I now adopt the mindset bestowed on me by my local African brothers…that of violence – I haven’t had one bit of trouble (touch wood) since. Apparently the ‘good’ people have become too soft. As soon as we retaliate we get left alone. It’s natural. So ‘lock n load’ (so to speak) all you good guys cos even the Good Lord Himself (according to the bible) will iron out all His problems with a good fight as scholarly debate, love, forgiveness and understanding only goes so far.

  • http://www.nakedlaw.co.za Carl Wille

    Thank you for sharing your interesting perspectives Michael. I would like to recommend Trauma and Recovery by Judith Herman of Harvard Medical School. She argues that traumatised societies will not heal without justice. My view is that the missing ingredient in South Africa is justice, including social and economic justice. We need to deal with the unfinished business of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission if we want to heal, move forward together and flourish?

  • MK-47

    We are the world in one country so it should not be surprising that we display the dis-functionality of the human race on this national stage.

    Other countries claim to have functional societies with respect for the law and property or indeed the rights of the individual.

    One forgets that these selfsame countries not so long ago were involved in mass-murder on a global scale!

    As to the article: I was actually amused at you attempt to de-couple race from your despairing diatribe!
    It is indeed difficult for ‘us’ liberal people to look at the doings of blacks and refrain from racist comments!
    Is there a criminal gene?
    is it activated more frequently if bad breeding results in low IQ coupled with a dysfunctional upbringing and added to by the ‘glorious freedom struggle’ that taught our people that a human body can burn!

    Apartheid – sure!
    But the struggle dehumanised us just as effectively but it is not de-rigeur to say so.

    Today’s children who burn books and libraries are just following in the footsteps of their parents – they know no different and they in turn will pass on this legacy to their offspring.

    As to the whites: I have spent 41 adult years in this country and I KNOW them and know what they think about blacks and this is not going to change anytime soon.

  • Robard


    When you speak of broken family structures it seems as if you are assuming monogamous family units as the norm. A polygamous situation could however easily account for the absence of 80% of men from a village. It could also account for the high incidence of rape as many men are excluded from access to women as well as crime in general as a young man without family responsibilities is more likely to fall into anti-social behaviour.

  • Sarah Henkeman

    @Michael – In the absence of knowledge of the offenders’ perspective/history and the interaction of ecosystemic influences and personal propensity; we don’t really know what is interacting with what to produce violence, do we? Which means, every opinion is partial (and palliative) even if it can be proven to be valid. Therefore remedies based on partial analyses don’t work to reduce violence convincingly… it simply adds to the body of knowledge of what works or not… something that most academics (unfortunately) are content with, not to mention the policymakers!

    @Carl Wille, thanks for the useful reference. If we as a society are serious about reducing violence/increasing peace, we must be bold enough to take different perspectives into account, or live with the symptoms and become increasingly judgemental.

  • GC

    Nobody writes about African epistemology – Africans believe that what their elders teach is true, as do many in the West interpret their belief in the Bible as true. What is so wrong with this? Do we question eastern beliefs? Mutwa writes in his book Indaba,My Children about the errors of the European and other researchers “facts” that get written as academic (therefore it must be true)works. The African has been ripped off and killed by whites for 300 odd years – why should he now become “Westernised” or trust white thought. Social determinism of Africans will have an outcome that we will find unacceptable – we cannot change or control the outcome. Is Canada accepting white African refugees?

  • SouthEaster

    For my R5 worth, I think a major factor has been the demographics caused by AIDS. Half of the population is below the age of 25, simply because the middle-aged and elderly age groups among the black population have been cut down by the disease.

    This means that there has been inadequate socialisation of a whole generation. No father figures or role models, no dicipline, no traditions passed down, no personal memories of apartheid passed on, nor the aspirations that the older generation once had for the future.

    An orphaned generation.