Sarah Britten
Sarah Britten

South Africa and that Time cover

Alex Perry’s story about Oscar Pistorius and South Africa’s culture of violence has inevitably attracted a great deal of attention from the Twittering classes. The general consensus is that the piece, which draws a link between Pistorius’s shooting of Reeva Steenkamp and the endemic violence that characterises our national culture, is poor journalism and full of unfair generalisation.

“The new South Africa has turned out to be no harmonious band of colors,” Perry writes. “Behind the latest in intruder deterrents for the elite, or flimsy barriers pulled together from tin sheets and driftwood for the poor, South Africans live apart and, ultimately, alone.”


Perry certainly errs on the side of the poetic. The connections that Perry makes, between the Battle of Blood River and gated estates, between internecine ANC battles, xenophobia and Afrikaner mistrust of English-speaking whites, are reminiscent of the kind of writing that emerged in the first flowering of rainbow nation mania after Nelson Mandela’s release. Still, there is a current of truth in lines like “If South Africa reveals its reality through crime, it articulates its dreams through sports”.

Nothing Perry has written is especially controversial. We say far worse things about ourselves all the time. But we are stung. Though we routinely engage in collective handwringing — Marikana, Anene — we do not like to read about ourselves through the eyes of others, not when those eyes are narrowed in criticism. Americans should look at themselves and their own culture of shooting little kids in classrooms is the most common response to the piece, the typical “Yes but they’re worse” retort we cling to when self-soothing in the wake of yet more bad news. When Piers Morgan tweeted that our gun violence is worse than that of the US, many South Africans were outraged. Poes Morgan, he was renamed, inevitably.

We crave the attention of the world and resent it in equal measure. We want to be loved, and we mourn the loss of the adulation to which we once felt entitled. We are confused and conflicted: that one of our sporting heroes was a big enough star on the world stage to dominate headlines offers us reassurance that we matter, even as we wince from the pain of seeing one of our heroes become a symbol of our collective failings.

But even if it hurts, I think that criticism by outsiders is a good thing. For one thing, it reminds us that, in the words of a Standard Bank ad that appeared more than 10 years ago, there’s more holding us together than keeping us apart. Perry was right: we are very divided. But are we in a state of dissolution, as he suggests? And if it’s not as bad as he says it is, then why not? Sometimes it’s easier to define ourselves but what we are not rather than what we are. By looking at how others see us, and in rejecting their version, gaining a new understanding of what needs to be done if we’re ever to embrace a sense of national identity beyond the flag and the performances of our sports stars.

As Khaya Dlanga tweeted in response to the piece, “The SA narrative cannot be dictated by others. We need to overpower the naysayers with our own voices”.

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    • Graham

      I was on holiday in Australia recently:
      Women jog alone in the evening.
      There is no electric fencing.
      They do not know what burglar-bars are.
      They don’t hide their bags under the car seat when they drive.

      I suppose that violence in South Africa has almost become ‘normal’, and we get very upset whenever foreign highlight this.

    • Skumbuzo Mbhele

      Sarah, I actually took the step to write to the editor of Time, about a few factual inaccuracies in the story, but also about the gist of the story. Perry did have some good points, but the sad thing is, we don’t take criticism too well, even when its earned.

      I disagree with Kaya Dlanga’s tweet though. Perception is everything, and narrative can be written on and debated by those abroad. Ratings agencies do it for a living, and we all have an opinions in world affairs. Locally, we even debate about Zimbabwe and I am sure more than a passing interest in world politics and economics. We have to if we want to operate in the “global economy”. Kaya’s tweet smacks of putting your head in the sand and pretending its not there.
      South Africans cannot however accept that the miracle that was 1994, is over, and we are now just another country trying to chase foreign investment with no special redeeming feature.
      We can’t simply dismiss articles like that written, even if some of it is sensationalist and factually incorrect. That Time has sought to use it as their cover page for all their publications reveals that there is merit in the article.
      South Africans still believe they’re special…….we’re no longer in that catagory… we have to prove our worth, just like every country in the world

    • Hameeda

      We have normalised crime and our efforts to protect ourselves to the extent that we forget it’s not a universal concern. But this is the country we live in, we were born into and it will always be home. And when someone attacks home, regardless of the weight of truth in the attack, we will try to defend its honour. Natural instinct.

    • Just a Thought

      I also went to Australia on holiday. On the gold coast (considered by ozzies to be a bit sketchy) surfers put their wallets, phones and keys in the board bags and leave them by the barrier between the boardwalk and the sand (no theft and the people arent naive). In our rainbow nation a lot of people find it difficult to secure their valuables in wall safes, behind barricaded houses and private security.

      We are blinkered to how bad things are when you live here every day.

      Case in point: The headline news in oz while I was there was that a murder took place after a jealous friend killed a guy for his inheritance after a relative passed away. The public were in a frenzy and demanded that the police chief resign. As if he was in the house at the time and could have stopped the crime.

      Crime in this country has got to such a level that it is entrenched from the president of the country all the way through society to the poor man on the street. And the good people just dodge the bullets, literally and figuratively.

      So all journalism spices things up for readership but its not an inaccurate reflection. And while I type this iol update their site to show that the ex bafana couch is up on charges for assault and a woman is raped reporting a crime at a police station. Eish

      Its high noon at the OK coral everyday chaps…..

    • Guinness Holic

      How about South Africans overpower we naysayers with your actions, for once?

    • Georgina Pilkington

      Yes we need to reflect on the state of all our cultures, our violent history, 20 years ago we all thought we would go up in flames. Violent acts are repeated by people who have been exposed to repeated acts of violence, brutality and oppression. All South Africans need to take part in the healing.

    • PM

      So which causes more outrage in SA–the Time article, or the video of the police dragging (then killing?) the taxi driver?

      And what does that say–do seffricans care more about what they do, or how they are perceived?

      Certainly, it is far easier to complain than to change…….especially when you are not even sure what to do in order to change.

      BTW, if I had any answers, I’d share….

    • Karny

      I find that, for many of my generation and older, the antidote to all this mind numbing violence and crime, is to reminisce about ” the old days”. Before anyone hysterically points out how evil and brutal the apartheid years were, no one denies that; but folks remember leaving possessions on the beach to go swim, window shopping in city centers at night, driving with car doors and windows unlocked and open, etc. unfortunately the chickens are coming home to roost; crime and violence have been allowed to grow unchecked ( appointing incompetent political favorites as police chiefs, telling those that complain about crime to bugger off overseas) . Public outrage has to push us all to force the government to start taking these problems seriously and fix them. Start by appointing a clean competent police chief.

    • Momma Cyndi

      SA reminds me of my own, somewhat, dysfunctional family. We can skinner and badmouth each other but let an outsider even consider dissing one of our family members and we stand together as if we are poster picture of the perfect family.

      What the overseas journalists don’t see is the grandmother who takes care of half a dozen orphans or the ‘madam’ that puts the gardener’s child through university, the young man who steps in to protect a stranger or the ‘baas’ who feeds a school … or the billions of other acts that restore our faith in the fantastic people who make up our dysfunctional family.

      In the yin and yang of it all, we are better off than most and more fantastic than any.

    • Joe Soap

      While there is an unacceptable amount of violence in South Africa, I live in a rural setting and I often come across women jogging by themselves on quite roads. The violence we are exposed to daily in the media is not everyone’s experience.

    • bernpm

      “……..Pistorius’s shooting of Reeva Steenkamp and the endemic violence that characterises our national culture, is poor journalism and full of unfair generalisation………..”

      If that is the case, why dwell and nitpick?? Rather ignore.

      The French have a saying: “qui s’excuse, s’accuse” (when you excuse yourself, you also accuse yourself)

    • Judith

      We can chose – be a victim or act. I act and thank you for this posting Sarah

    • Nguni

      I did not read the Time article but find it alarming that they are making generalisations about South Africans based on what this absolutely paranoid, albeit famous sportsman did!

    • Biswajeet Banerjee

      I always believed that India is the most lawless country. But now I believe there more states that need strict policing and implementation of rules. Rot is there in India, but it is not the worst.

    • Paul S

      Khaya Dlanga’s observation is probably the best of the lot. But the SA narrative WILL be dictated by others if we are unwilling/brutalized/disinterested to the extent that we do not overpower the naysayers with our own voices. The indicators that we will achieve that in the near future ? Not good.

    • Dave Lazarus

      Seriously, Sarah, if you think Perry is using poetic licence to describe SA then you must be wearing one big set of blinkers. The Time article is chillingly accurate and written with little or no bias. You say we are confused and conflicted ? Sure as hell we are – we know how bad things are but as the privileged classes we cannot or will not face up to that because we stand to lose so much.

    • Blogroid

      When I published the “Buffalo Hunters” in 1996:a violent crime novel set in Gauteng, in 1996, there were 26000 murders that year, and the neighborhood in which I live had more murders than the Uk that year, I also could not walk out of my house without hearing gunfire.

      I understand that the current figure is 19000 and our local rag records few in our neighborhood… I also almost never hear gunfire anymore, and I’m still in the same place. So to an extent things have improved.

      We are in the tail end of a revolution and dysfunction is normal… The fact that we are getting tougher indicates that we are coming to terms with what happens and like the Wild West before us we are getting a handle on the fact that we have an enduring difficulty that may require radical interventions… And we are perhaps running out of time, as our growing reputation for being an unfavorable investment destination becomes entrenched.

      Undoubtedly we are on a cusp… And I am skeptical that any of your readers will enjoy the scenario I have created as a solution, in my third story: the Jonker Memorandum, a cyber serial currently at episode 70, with about 15 to go. nonetheless there may be no alternative:: New Delhi indicates that our own problem in simply part of the human condition.

    • Dan Gleebits

      As an SA expat of 10 years living in Europe I still feel stung by criticisms of the home that lies in my heart. I visit fairly often and follow developments closely, intending to return.

      But I am coming to believe that SA is sinking, and our people have become like the proverbial frog in the heating water, unaware that it is about to boil and consume them.

      Whilst expressing impotent rage in on-line press comments or on Twitter, the minority are powerless as the ANC blunders on its ideological suicide mission, incapable of calling corrupt and incompetent cadres to order, from the Eastern Cape to the North West.

      The majority meanwhile swallow the mad propaganda that anyone but the ANC will take them back to the “bad old days”, so power will not change hands. And even from this distance the Zuma machinations to centre absolute power on himself are obvious. Intra-ANC power struggles intensify.

      All the while delivery crumbles – water supplies become toxic, hospitals fail, education collapses and Municipalities are paralysed (Google any of these subjects in the E Cape for very recent examples). And 14 000-plus per year die on the roads, rape and violence against children and women surges – all disappearing within days from news under a welter of new scandal.

      So yes, the latest international exposure in “Time” stings but the myth of the Rainbow Nation is now also exposed internationally and it is time for SA to take a hard look in the mirror: It will not…

    • Rory Short

      What others say about you, or your nation is, useful to the degree that it is true because the true items you can do something about. Falsehoods refer to nothing so there is nothing concrete that can be done about them

    • Nx

      I currently live in Australia (for work purposes).

      Aboriginal men also die in police custody:

      In Melbourne last year, a young woman disappeared during her walk home from the pub a few hundred meters from her home, and after days of online hysteria and speculation, she was found to be have been abducted, raped, and murdered.

      People also shouted that the only reason her case made the news was because she was pretty & that this happens all too often.

      A man was killed by police yesterday after being under siege for nearly 48 hours. Some of his previous rape crimes have been so horrific that a judge would not read them out during sentencing because he did not want these in the public record.

      I have woken up at 3am to circling helicopters and cops beating a suspected burglar outside my complex.

      I’m not saying SA’s crime is not bad and should not be dealt with. I’m exhausted by SAfricans thinking we have it the worst. Get some perspective. And learn from those who are doing it well.

      Or do a course in “Comparative Politics” & learn to compare apples with apples, dev’ing…

    • Garg Unzola

      Alex Perry is apparently an award winning journalist. Now that we’ve seen his journalism, I can’t help but wonder what the award was for.

    • Touched

      Sarah well said. As always.

      Graham: – Australia is there too. I was in Matric in 1992 with twin boys who’s sister went on a working holiday to Australia and was murdered there. They were writing finals when their parents had to fly over for the court case.

      Every country has its own problems. We think it’s normal to drive with closed and tinted windows, skip traffic lights and stop streets at night, don’t trust the police and metro, lock our doors when a black man comes near our car etc etc etc

      I have a friend who lives in Israel. It’s perfectly normal for her and her family to live in a bunker for a day or even 2 weeks because they live 30kms from the Gaza strip. I say that’s insane! She says it’s surreal. It’s all relevant.

      However. Fix the problems at community level. Teach families how to be families no matter how poor and/or uneducated they are. I know plenty of people who came from dirt poor families (myself included) and are successful today. Why? They had a close family and they had the love and support of their families. Start with the family nucleus. Teach respect, dignity and love. Heal the family and you can start to heal a nation.

    • Gary Koekemoer

      Every morning 45 million very different people get up and get on with their lives. That is the ongoing miracle that South Africa is. They are not perfect lives, we are not perfect people, this is not a perfect country.
      So a sport star shoots his girlfriend, motive yet undetermined, what makes it different from the other men killing women cases we have in SA? He’s not the first sport star to do so, OJ et al, he won’t be the last. Great for the media, poor for our image, as every journalist looks for a new angle on the Oscargate and attempts to hang every challenge in SA on the actions of one man.
      We are a “mengelmoes”, a hodgepodge of beliefs, languages, cultures, communities, genders and personal histories, that somehow manage to live together. It’s messy, it’s chaotic, it’s violent, it’s a struggle, its a roller-coaster ride! But we’re still here! Many times our detractors have predicted our demise, and every day we prove them wrong!

    • Willem Human

      Now if ever there was a case of the pot calling the kettle black, this must be the number one of them all. Americas TIME magazine reporting about a South African violent culture, ( that includes ALL of us ) meantime back at the ranch, dozens of school kids have been gunned down.Why focus on Oscar Pistorius ? Most South Africans are law abiding citizens. Rather put the focus on the incompetent ANC government, unable to control the sad state of affairs we ALL currently find ourselves in.

    • ori

      I invite you to spread your opinion on the new page of the young African leaders here..

    • Momma Cyndi

      Dan Gleebits

      Come visit.
      I will show you a thousand acts of courage and kindness in one week.
      SA won’t fail because it has the best people on the face of the earth. Left to the government, we would have failed already but it is not only ‘n boer that maak ‘n plan. We lived through worse Presidents and governments and we will persevere through this

    • Luddite

      Gary, I really admire your attitude that we are all in this glorious mengelmoes together.
      But your post reeks of Pollyanna-ism

      Unfortunately far too many Reeva Steenkamps, Anene Booysens and my own family friends, associates and colleagues are not here.

      They’re dead.

      I have serious reservations raising my kids in a society where I live in perpetual fear they they will not return from walking 3 blocks to the Cafe to buy a packet of chips.

    • Greg

      Why such a fuss over the article. There is violence in SA and massive poverty and unemployment. Wealth is generally split on racial lines with whites dominating. There is no broad consensus on what a South African is – the white South African like the Rhodesian of old is confused. He is outnumbered and lost out morally, economically and at the ballot box in 1994. Who cares about voortrekkers and their origin.All over the world there are ethnic groups fighting for supremacy and power. Nobody cares about white South Africans and especially Afrikaners.

      It seems that South Africans are so isolated that they can’t debate and don’t understand nuance and gist.I don’t know about Oscar and whether he is the product of a violent society. I think he is the product of a celebrity and sports mad world and he must be unbalanced and violent regardless of nationality – otherwise the article is mild. Every week females are murdered by their men of all races but it does seem more prevalent amongst Blacks ad Afrikaners than by English speakers.
      Pistorious made world news because he is a world icon not because he is South African

    • Gary Koekemoer

      @ Luddite, are you still here? Here as in South Africa. If so, why do you stay? I don’t mean it flippantly, it’s a sincere question as to why, if you feel that threatened, would you continue to stay? I wouldn’t hold it against you if you did leave. Many people have died violent deaths in this beautiful country. I am sorry for your loss! Had I experienced the same, I might be packing my bags? I’ve had the good fortune though of living in many different countries, I liked some, I liked parts of some, and some I wouldn’t go back to. South Africa isn’t the only country in which people die violently. Likewise it isn’t the only beautiful country in the world. There are many things about this place that concern me deeply. But this is my home, I belong here. I like its people, I like the vibrancy, I like the “mengelmoes”. Maybe I am deluded…

    • Marc

      Gary: “@ Luddite, are you still here? Here as in South Africa. If so, why do you stay? I don’t mean it flippantly, it’s a sincere question as to why, if you feel that threatened, would you continue to stay?”

      You realize, of course, that the vast majority of South Africans are not able to move somewhere else, regardless of a desire to do so?

    • Gary Koekemoer

      @ Marc so if you could you would?

    • Luddite

      Hi Gary: thanks for your thoughts.

      I left. I took my family to Canada.

      The final straw: arriving home one evening and being greeted by a stranger with a pistol to my head.

      I am a medical professional and a university professor; my wife is also a medical professional. We have a lot to offer RSA, but each time we come back we feel less and less secure.

      My family is safe and we have freedoms and opportunities beyond anywhere else in the world that I have experienced, but it’s still bitter sweet for all the reasons you mention. And yes, I miss the mengelmoes.

    • Marc


      I’m long gone.