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On systemic lawlessness in South Africa

What we have in South Africa today is systemic lawlessness. The parking meters around the mall I often visit have not worked in more than two months. The last time I visited, everyone seemed fully aware of the malfunction, but nobody seemed to care. Some people were quite gleeful about there being free parking. Others saw it as an opportunity for that low-intensity extortion, parading as car guards, that we do so well and that we have internalised culturally.

It is easy to be seduced by the benefits of a malfunctioning society; where personal gain, privilege or opportunities are the benefits of lapses in law in enforcement. On any given day during my commute to the office, I witness people, civilians, breaking any number of laws. Taxis climb on to the shoulders of the road and, without any apparent sense of wrongdoing, disrupt traffic when they swing back on to the road. Yesterday, someone in a high-powered sports car sped up to the back of my car, flashed his lights, then swerved left, three lanes across without indicating, then swerved back dangerously into the fast lane. Almost immediately thereafter, another luxury car came up to my rear and stayed within a metre of my car. We’re travelling at 120km an hour! I count, on the way into the office every day, three, four, five traffic lights out of order. These are small, seemingly innocuous issues, but they add up to something bigger. They point to systemic lawlessness.

A problem is systemic when it occurs in more than one place almost simultaneously. Consider the example of banking crises. When one bank fails it may be because of a particular problem with the particular bank. When several banks fail at the same time, the problem is systemic. We speak, then, of a failure that affects the entire system. If there is a defining feature of South African society today, it would have to be systemic lawlessness. This systemic lawlessness is pervasive and it is apparent in society; from civilians to government. It is of course not new or unique to South Africa. In the United States, following the publication of the Wickersham Commission report, systemic lawlessness on the part of the police authorities were identified.* In Sri Lanka, the state has been accused of being an agent of systemic lawlessness. In Australia, the Cole Royal Commission (2002-03) found wide scale and systemic lawlessness in the construction sector across Australia. None of this is sufficient grounds for ignoring our own state of lawlessness.

In South Africa we seem to have, on the one hand, civilians who defy and violate laws at every step and stage of their daily lives to secure privilege, and on the other there are systems of governance that are breaking down. It is, of course, easy to point to government and say that there are traffic lights that are not working. It is indeed government’s responsibility to ensure that existing infrastructure, like traffic lights, are working (before building new high-tech toll roads), or upgrade existing commuter rails (before building state of the art train systems that serve only a minority of elites). We expect government to get at least the basics right. It is however also up to civilians to take responsibility for our actions, within existing structures of the law. There are rules or laws of conduct in society (like traffic laws) which, as much as they are designed for the purposes of control, they make fairly positive contributions to society. That is, of course, if we abide by them, and if the police, actually, enforce them.

Whenever we speak of breakdown, corruption and ill-discipline in South Africa, it is automatically assumed (not without reason) that the state is inept and responsible for all our ills in society. We never actually look at our own conduct. Nonetheless, I would invite a police officer to join me at a particular crossing every day — every citizen can probably do it, perhaps we all should — to witness, for themselves, the lawlessness. In fact, I would speculate that they would issue so many fines that the state’s revenues would increase significantly. Alas if only the fines were actually paid, collected, placed into the right bank accounts and, well, accounted for …

* Richard A. Leo, 2009, Police Interrogation and American Justice, Harvard University Press, p 71.


  • I Lagardien

    I am a political economist. In earlier incarnations, I worked as a journalist and photojournalist, as a professor of political economy and an international and national public servant. I rarely get time to write for this space as often as I would like to.... I don't read the comments section