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Some perspective on race and crime

There are a lot of ways to respond to something like Annelie Botes’ stated aversion to black people. My initial one didn’t rise to anything worthy of reproduction. However, the reality is that her views are shared by a significant portion of the population. Except in the case that those people’s fears are realised, and South Africa one day goes down the road of Rwanda or Idi Amin’s Uganda, it is an issue that must be dealt with. Over and over again, until it ceases to be an issue.

I get that many white South Africans are genuinely fearful of falling victim to crime. Having experienced life as a minority, I can relate to those people who struggle to step out of their front door by themselves. Being a black immigrant among a people developing a growing conviction that you are the source of their economic woes must reflect a fraction of what the likes of Botes feel. To a degree, I empathise. To a degree …

But here’s the thing, Botes is nowhere close to representing the most vulnerable groups in modern day South Africa. Those people are predominately black. White South Africans generally have a voice, be it the ability to: evoke Jacob Zuma’s sympathy, real or affected; get asylum in Canada; mobilise the resources to document their hardships; have international networks ensure their lot is made known by international NGOs (a policy officer for an Irish NGO told me some time ago that the group she was most worried about in South Africa was Afrikaans women) and as was demonstrated in the early days of Zimbabwe’s troubles, a heck of a lot of poor black people have to die to get the same international press coverage as the death (sometimes the assault) of a white African. Botes has a voice, but the really vulnerable, Gayatri Spivak will tell you, don’t. That’s what makes them so vulnerable.

I am not suggesting that only the worst off have the right to complain. Only that before assessing a complaint, it has to be put in context.

It’s the issue of context that really bothers me. Let’s set aside the fact that crime is more likely to occur within, rather than across racial groups. Crime doesn’t just happen. Only the most contemptible racist would suggest that black South Africans are genetically predisposed to criminality. So what gives? Why is there so much crime in South Africa, and why is the face of that crime, as Botes suggests, black? I’m no criminologist or psychiatrist, but what stands out in South Africa’s past? What could have contributed to the hardening of so many people of a certain racial and socio-economic profile? What could have contributed to the socialisation of that group into patterns of criminality, led to such poor educational outcomes, limited employment options, and in some cases, even diminished the ability to hold down the meagre job options that were available? Any thoughts? Guesses, anyone?

German philosopher Thomas Pogge has a pretty demanding concept of the demands that justice places on each of us. If we benefit from a system that harms others, we are responsible, in part, for those harms. Take apartheid, for example. Should the system that decimated individuals, families, and family structures, have worked to the advantage of someone who today is a 50-something-year-old author, those individuals, families and family structures are justified in making claims against that author — and others in her position. Should the system that nurtured our author’s talents have simultaneously robbed countless others of theirs; should her ability to make a decent living have indirectly come at the cost of theirs — at that time as well as in the future — should her ability to hide in a comfortable, gated community be related to their housing crises or her having acquired the privileges that enable one to emigrate be intertwined with their socio-economic stagnation; then they have on Pogge’s view, a very real claim against this author.

None of that is to say that middle-aged white South Africans aren’t entitled to the same protections as the rest of the country. But when, despite historical injustice, members of a group are still significantly better off than many of their compatriots, spitting in the face of attempts to “move forward” by bemoaning the state of affairs, which exists in part because of a system that benefitted them, is appalling. It is sickening and infuriating.

Pogge’s concept of justice cuts both ways, however. It would suggest that poor white people have a real claim on the new black elite. And so they should, in the same way that those who have started to benefit from an independent South Africa have obligations towards those of their fellows whom they have left behind.

I would love to see a system in which each saw themselves as their brothers’ and sisters’ keeper. If not that, as having the duty to oppose any system or practice that benefitted them at the expense of others. But I can’t imagine Julius Malema, the country’s top bankers and industrialists, or very many ordinary people for that matter, pressing the government to raise their taxes in order to fund progressive social and economic initiatives. So all I’m asking for is a little perspective. Before giving in completely to their paranoia, could the likes of Botes please think a little.