Bert Olivier
Bert Olivier

Crime: There is something rotten in the state of South Africa

Driving to work this morning I heard the news about the fatal shooting of Bafana Bafana and Orlando Pirates captain Senzo Meyiwa. Saddening and extremely disturbing as it is, the irony of the matter is that it is even more saddening that the vast majority of people who fall senseless victims to the apparently never-ending wave of violence in this country of ours never even receive a mention in the media, let alone receiving expressions of outrage and frustration on social media and on Twitter.

Meyiwa’s death seems to have occurred in the course of a robbery where the assailants “wanted cellphones”. The mere idea of killing another human being for a cellphone (or for anything else, for that matter), beggars belief — except, of course, if one recalls that you live in South Africa, ironically the supposed “rainbow nation”, with all the idealism and hopes of reconciliation after the end of apartheid that this beautiful image implies.

There is something rotten in the state of South Africa (with acknowledgement to Shakespeare). The reason for my metaphorical allusion to Hamlet’s Denmark should be obvious. In Shakespeare’s Hamlet the prince returns from university after the death of his father, suspecting foul play, and — to cut a long story short — stages a “play within a play” to test the reaction of his uncle, Claudius, who has since married his mother, Gertrude, and concludes that Claudius is the guilty party. In brief, Hamlet sets out to uncover the “rotten” reality behind “rosy” appearances, and resolves to avenge his father’s death (at his own cost, in the end).

South Africa suffers under the same dichotomy of appearances that belie the social reality on our streets and roads, in our houses and shopping centres, and on many of our farms. As far as the international community is concerned, South Africa (and the rest of the world) witnessed the miracle of a peaceful transition to democracy in 1994, and is held up as the paradigm of a stable, institutional democracy. This is the appearance. The social reality behind this is that it is one of the most violent countries in the world, where a young soccer captain who — in light of his recent performances — held the promise of leading the national soccer team out of the doldrums into the light of recognition, was cut down SENSELESSLY and randomly. Again, I am not suggesting that only individuals like Meyiwa deserve to be mourned (and avenged) — every person who suffers a similar fate in this country, regardless of their station in life, from the humblest to the most respected, deserves to be mourned (and avenged). The focus is too much on those in the limelight — witness the media frenzy around the trial of Oscar Pistorius.

Senzo Meyiwa (Gallo)

Senzo Meyiwa (Gallo)

The question on everyone’s lips is a variation on something like “When will it stop, South Africa?” And “What is to be done, South Africa?” The long-term answer is easy to formulate, but difficult to implement. It amounts to this: a sense of shared community has to be cultivated, where everyone — from the president to the poorest of people — will feel that they are part of the South African community. Needless to emphasise, this is not the case at present — far from it, and I, for one, do not perceive many signs of moving closer to this long-term objective. Instead, resentment, born of a sense of entitlement, is widespread in South Africa.

Many black people who suffered under apartheid observe the newly emerged elites and, in a helpless state of fury and resentment, demand their share of wealth — to no avail for the vast majority, of course. Many white people — especially those who were openly in favour of unbanning the ANC and making the switch to majority rule — feel that they have been betrayed by the country’s government.

Instead of being able to live securely and productively in this beautiful country, South Africans have been provided with no security by those government agencies — notably the South African Police Service — responsible for ensuring a safe social environment for the country’s citizens. What is baffling is this: that police commissioner Riah Phiyega — or the minister responsible for the police — does not seem to be able to improve policing in practical, concrete terms. Again, don’t get me wrong — I don’t believe that getting rid of violent crime in this country is solely the duty of the police; every person has to do her or his bit. And working towards a shared sense of community is the most desirable state of affairs, which would be tantamount to prevention, not cure. That said, however, it does not require a genius to see that some of the most obvious ways in which the police can contribute to crime prevention are sadly lacking in South Africa.

The most important of these is probably visible policing — the presence of police on city streets, in malls, on beaches, and everywhere in social space where there is the merest possibility that violent crime could flare up unpredictably. The sight of the ubiquitous London Bobby in Britain has always been reassuring to the British and to visitors alike, and mounted police in US cities like New York and Philadelphia is a concrete deterrent to any would-be criminals. I lived in the US for a number of years, and I still recall how, in downtown Philly, police on bicycles or on horseback were always part of the late-night crowd in the streets.

Occasionally I have actually seen mounted police in Central, Port Elizabeth, but certainly not on a regular basis. To prevent the kind of crime that resulted in Meyiwa’s death is more difficult, but regular police patrols — police in cars driving slowly, and conspicuously, through neighbourhood streets — would be a beginning. At present security companies have to step into the breach for the police — after a burglary at our house earlier this year, we switched to a more efficient security company that patrols the streets in the area where we live throughout the night and day, as many South Africans have had to do in the lamentable absence of police protection.

But how many people can afford to pay a security company to do the work of the police? Relatively few, I’m sure. And isn’t it ironic to hear, with clockwork regularity, the SAPS issuing statements to the effect of something like: “Mr X’s killers will be tracked down and will face the full might of the law”? When you are dead you are dead, in case the police haven’t noticed. Meyiwa’s death is no exception — it is final, and all the promise of further development of his soccer and leadership talents has been squashed by an absurd deed that might have been prevented if South Africa had a police force worthy of the name.

Violence is not restricted to crime, of course. When one thinks of the rotten state of South Africa one has to include many things that are symptomatic of the appearance/reality divide. Just think of the phenomenon of road rage. What it signifies is that when South Africans get into a motor car, they find themselves in a situation where the slightest sign that another driver’s behaviour is inconveniencing them becomes the trigger for a potentially violent reaction on their part. This is symptomatic of a veritable volcano of frustrations, resentments and pent-up anger that lurks just under the surface in most people’s psyches, and that will be projected onto anyone who gives one the slightest reason to explode behind the wheel of your car.

If the present situation is not addressed on many levels but with the same goal in mind — to create a situation where resentment, blame and anger make way for a sense of community and shared responsibility — the slaughter will continue.

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