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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.


  • As an undergraduate student, Bert Olivier discovered Philosophy more or less by accident, but has never regretted it. Because Bert knew very little, Philosophy turned out to be right up his alley, as it were, because of Socrates's teaching, that the only thing we know with certainty, is how little we know. Armed with this 'docta ignorantia', Bert set out to teach students the value of questioning, and even found out that one could write cogently about it, which he did during the 1980s and '90s on a variety of subjects, including an opposition to apartheid. In addition to Philosophy, he has been teaching and writing on his other great loves, namely, nature, culture, the arts, architecture and literature. In the face of the many irrational actions on the part of people, and wanting to understand these, later on he branched out into Psychoanalysis and Social Theory as well, and because Philosophy cultivates in one a strong sense of justice, he has more recently been harnessing what little knowledge he has in intellectual opposition to the injustices brought about by the dominant economic system today, to wit, neoliberal capitalism. His motto is taken from Immanuel Kant's work: 'Sapere aude!' ('Dare to think for yourself!') In 2012 Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University conferred a Distinguished Professorship on him. Bert is attached to the University of the Free State as Honorary Professor of Philosophy.


  1. Theo Theo 27 October 2014

    One young live ended, many more to follow. I agree with Bert that the problem lies deeper. In my opinion the problem must be addressed at school level. Spare the rod, spoil the child. How I hated that saying when I was young but it is true. Our whole society is sick and is going to get worse if people see no future for themselves or their children. It does not matter what your skin colour is, everybody hopes and dreams about a better future but our government is only too busy enriching themselves to worry about the poor sods that makes up the electorate!

  2. Victor Victor 27 October 2014

    South Africa is the second most unequal country in the world in regards the GINI index of distribution of family income.

    Furthermore the unemployment rate (especially for youths) is appalingly high.

    Could it perhaps be some of the (major) reasons for the crime?

    I hardly think turning the country into a police state will do much to alleviate the situation and the above ‘challenges’. (Provided one sees them as ‘challenges’, of course).

  3. Tom Evans Tom Evans 27 October 2014

    We have a massive socio-economic problem which government is not addressing. Millions of people live in appalling conditions and money ear-marked for their upliftment and the upliftment of society in general is being stolen through various means. We have some of the most constrictive labour legislation in the world which is holding back employment growth. We have labour unions who are stifling job growth. We have AA, BBBEE and a host of other laws which are continually threatening business in general if they do not comply and in so doing are again slowing down job and economic growth. We have a host of Department Heads and CEOs who are not really even qualified to make a cup of tea. And lastly, we have a president who appears to be totally unaware of (or perhaps unconcerned) as to the true state of things. And to top it all we have the head of the police earning a 10 year commemorative award in only 2 years.
    Small wonder that British PM Cameron has no interest in meeting Zuma.
    My mind is reeling!

  4. Momma Cyndi Momma Cyndi 27 October 2014

    Do the police stations still have ADT alarms? I wasn’t sure if I should be horrified or amused by those.

    Like Lord of the Flies shows, civilization is a rather thin veneer. If the law of the jungle is eat or be eaten, and if those who do the eating are rewarded, then that is what people will do. Humans have survived because they do what works. Hard work, training and self discipline gives you a bullet. Selfishness, a weapon and no conscience gets you what ever you want. With such an almost non existent chance of ever being caught, why work for what you want? If you are unlucky enough to be one of those, very few, who are caught, well there is an incompetent NPA and dockets to be bought. Your one, and only, danger is that street justice will get to you before the judicial system finds you.

  5. ian shaw ian shaw 27 October 2014

    There is a lot of anger in both blacks and whites, leading to the burning of infrastructure as well as road rage. Everyone seems betrayed and ignored.
    Small wonder why crime is so ubiquitous.

  6. Maria Maria 27 October 2014

    Bert, although explanation of violent crime in SA was not your purpose here, in my opinion the best explanation you have given is this one, which goes back a number of years:

    This is a condensed version of Bert’s chapter in the book edited by Aydan Gulerce (Re(con)figuring Psychoanalysis, Palgrave-Macmillan, 2012), which I subsequently read – “Violent crime in post-apartheid South Africa”. It is worth reading.

  7. Heinrich Heinrich 28 October 2014

    We need a plan. Other wise things are bound to deteriorate. The following 10 point plan is proposed :

    1) Create industries to add value to raw materials – like scrap metal, agricultural and mining materials.
    2) Implement strict ( value added ) immigration policies.
    3) Implement DNA profiling
    4) Separate SAPS operations and administration. Have SAPS posts in suburbs and townships.
    5) Implement SAPS training and disciplinary systems. ( Collusion = treason )
    6) Democratize and de-politicize National Management (Government). Eliminate gangsterism within government – scrap political party system.
    7) Drastically reduce Governmental salaries and perks. Implement wage compression.
    8) Implement quality – focused government : No outside business interests.
    9) Implement SANDF / Correctional Services / SAPS / Tertiary Education driven “Kibbutz” type system to deal with gangsterism, illiteracy and unemployment in society.
    10) Criminalize all and any destructive behaviour.( Burning, trashing,breaking,looting etc ). Act sternly.

  8. Paul Whelan Paul Whelan 28 October 2014

    A country that narrowly avoided full-scale civil war, that was in many respects cut off from the rest of the world, where 80% of society were excluded from society and kept poor and uneducated as a matter of policy, where a new ‘democracy’ emphasizing ‘rights’ not responsibilities has been in place barely 20 years, where one party in that ‘democracy’ is seen by a substantial majority as their only option and has, as a result, a quasi-monopoly of power .. and we expect things to go smoothly?

    In a hundred years, SA people who lived through these times will be seen as some sort of courageous pioneers and the work they started will still be only in progress. The best contribution our generation can make is to realize the ideals of modern constitutional government are not secured without an effort from every one of us as individuals, not because ‘they’ signed off an ‘advanced’ constitution and by now it should be working.

  9. Bert Bert 28 October 2014

    Thanks for the comments, most of which are constructive.
    Paul – I agree with your notion of the (democratizing) work being done at present will still be work in progress in a century from now. This is true of all democracies, though, which is why Derrida says so tersely that democracy is always still to come.

  10. Baz Baz 28 October 2014

    Life in South Africa has become too ‘everything for granted’ and has no value.
    Yet, people still get away with sensless murders, robberies,domestic violence,
    the list is totally endless.
    Our authorities SHOULD INSTIL STERNER RESTRICTIONS on the crime committed.
    MURDER FOR ONE ! Life sentence, nothing less than 20 years, and while in prison, the culprit can continue to study, do community work within the prison enviroment.
    Wake up, South africa before it’s too late.

  11. Paul S Paul S 28 October 2014

    I read a comment following an M&G column on the same topic where the writer expressed the view that “it is as though Mandela never lived”.
    Just as well the old man has departed as he’d be heartbroken by the violent mess SA is in now.

  12. zoo keeper zoo keeper 29 October 2014

    The are many facets to crime.

    Firstly, there are the casual factors you write about. These can only really be addressed through education, promoting economic growth and a strong sense of being one community – one society.

    Secondly, we have a violent crime problem right now. The casual factors cannot be addresses immediately and all we can do is a holding job on keeping violent crime down. Crime will still happen, but if we can shift it from confrontational crime to non-confrontational, we’ll be doing a lot better – like burglary instead of robbery.

    The solution to this does not lie in increasing the police force and increasing their powers. This is a suggestion borne out of an unconscious habit of abrogating responsibility for one’s safety.

    More visible policing will help to a minor degree. I say minor because determined criminals will wait their chance to strike when the highly visible police are not there.

    Also, we simply do not have the resources for the level of policing suggested, so forget about it. It would take multiplying our police force by a factor of 10 to even get near regular police patrols on all streets – not just suburbia of course.

    So how do we prevent violent crime as best we can? Simple actually. We have to increase the rights of people in self defense situations. It must be easy to defend ourselves without fear of recourse. Criminals must fear us because right now they do not.

  13. Baz Baz 29 October 2014

    Wake South Africa !
    Enough is enough! are we allowing crime to overrule everyhting
    including senseless murders ?

  14. zoo keeper zoo keeper 29 October 2014

    @ Baz

    Sentencing makes no difference really. Our sentences are already harsh yet violent crime is still a feature of SA life.

    The only way to reduce the incidence of violent crime is to increase individual rights to self defense, and the individual’s ability to use whatever means or tools required to defend themselves.

    When criminals are too scared to come into your home because of you – not the police or a maybe sentence IF they are caught and IF they are successfully prosecuted – then we’ll see a huge reduction in violent crime.

    Right now everyone says people must run and hide when the criminals come knocking – that only emboldens the criminals who know they have more prey who won’t fight back.

    As the cliche goes, the first responder to a crime scene is the victim.

  15. Policat Policat 29 October 2014

    We live in an era of entitlement which is ravaging the very soul of this nation and the governance systems which ensconce a normal democratic society have been corrupted by this, hence the disturbing headlines we are greeted with every day.
    Until attitudes change and the leadership and citizenry of the country focus their allegiance to the their country and not themselves and fickle party affiliations nothing will change.

  16. Khotso Moabi Khotso Moabi 29 October 2014

    I am listening to Lesedi FM: Matshohlo program – news), the main issue of the program is crime prevention. There is a great concern about gangs of boys who commit murder in Botshabelo. The guest from the eduacation department in Orange Free State Province reports that teachers are beaten up in Botshabelo by these gangs who do anything to anyone. This is a clear indication of the violence in South Africa.

    I agree with you Prof. Bert that it is the responsibility of every person in South Africa to prevent crime, and not just watch and wait for the police.

    In Lesotho, about two months ago the Lesotho Mounted Police Service publicly announced that they were not on duty for about four days and left all police stations and police posts alone in the country due to the attacks made by the Lesotho Defence Force to the police stations where one police was killed while others were injured.

    During that time there were no serious crime reports. There was no violence at all! The absence of the police did not mean that people should go violent.

    This is the result of community policing, the police (including myself when I was a police) taught and trained members of community policing forums about how to prevent crime.

    It shows that people can live without the police. People can make a better and safe place for themselves.

  17. philosoraptor philosoraptor 30 October 2014

    We’re all blaming and giving “OUR” solutions, here goes my sixpence-worth:
    Blame: Until the crime at the top (and yes, I mean starting with our President Zuma) is addressed, we will never reduce crime. “Crackdowns” are counter-productive and will only lead to a police state in which the “top” will be even more brazen about their stealing. The protests against service delivery are one of the few things that I see as bright lights. Once they die the looters and mafia will have won.
    Solution: A long and slow process taking place from the bottom up, starting with ME (and you) and including civil disobedience. A stubborn refusal to accept Zuma’s silence and dodging of responsibility, a never-ending daily demanding that he account for himself. Ditto for each minister, tenderpreneur, etc;
    Every project in your ‘hood should be challenged as to fairness and value; Daily assessing of service delivery. TAC and Education NGO-like.
    Unless WE do things daily, nothing will be done.
    Lest we forget: The New SA is working very VERY nicely for some people; Everything is 100% in SA for certain people; “Delivery” is proceeding apace for certain people. If we allow those “certain people” to have their way, NOTHING will change (except that things will go MORE their way, there will be LESS drama and noise about their stealing -…

  18. Victor Victor 30 October 2014

    It is remarkable, albeit hardly surprising, that the article, and most of the comments, address the symptoms of the problem rather than the root causes.

    What is needed are political and socio-economic reforms, otherwise the problem will never be effectively dealt with. Increase of police activity may in the short run solve some problems, but it can never be a substitute for reforms.

  19. bernpm bernpm 30 October 2014

    @ Heinrich #

    “We need a plan. Other wise things are bound to deteriorate. The following 10 point plan is proposed…………”

    Some good ideas, but they all mean work to be implemented and continued.
    Our dear ANC government is not “working” in more than one way.

  20. Momma Cyndi Momma Cyndi 30 October 2014


    Whilst I have no doubt that social and political issues do contribute to the problem, is there any basis for your belief that it is the root cause?

  21. baz baz 31 October 2014

    @ Zookeeper on Baz’s comment : So even if you ward off your potential attacker,
    the attacker or intruder still gets off lightly.
    The outcome of the Oscar trail is shocking but I am sure the majoarity of the public
    was expecting this to happen. That is another issue entirely own it’s own to discuss,but still falls under “murder”
    Think you missed my point entirely.

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