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.


  • I have returned to South Africa. I now teach Economic History and Development Studies at the University of KwaZulu-Natal. I am happy to be back after a couple years away. I had been teaching anthropology at a Canadian University, but Africa called and I returned.


Michael Francis

I have returned to South Africa. I now teach Economic History and Development Studies at the University of KwaZulu-Natal. I am happy to be back after a couple years away. I had been teaching anthropology...

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