In 'A Country Unhinged'* Anthony Altbeker writes authoritatively and insightfully on South Africa's crime conundrum. You realise, poring through the statistics, that in terms of crime, we South Africans live amongst some disgusting human beings. The term 'Proudly South African', once again in the context of our incredible capacity for not just criminality but exceedingly violent criminality, is hard to swallow without sticking painfully in one's throat.
There are a lot of conflicting views on what to do, and how to do it. I think one has to start off by being thoroughly informed of the forces at play. This is what makes Altbeker's book vital reading.
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The recent killing of Lucky Dube illustrates the very worrying component implicit in South African crime. He was shot 3 times. Nothing was stolen. In the Sunday World a writer pondered whether Dube was assassinated. The SAP maintain that it was a botched hijacking. Three gunshot wounds, to make sure the person who got in their way would definitely die, and suffer the consequences for interfering with their 15 minutes of Power.
So the question has to be asked: WHY IS S.A. SUCH A VIOLENT SOCIETY? Altbeker posits the following:
- Fear of consequence is the reason most people don't commit crime. That fear is virtually absent in this country, along with a general sense of accountability, to anyone, for anything. This is what Altbeker describes as a 'culture' of criminality.
- The past is not dead. Apartheid's legacy, and the way this nation came into being (the Zulu Warsm the Boer War, and the technical ceasefires ever since) have never really been resolved. There's an underlying resentment that is easily stirred. There is an underlying sense of disenchantment, disempowerment, disenfranchisement that simmers. It is especially easy to bring to the boil in those who are poor, but it is also present in the average citizen.
- Disappointment: democracy and AIDS erode the 'Happy Picture' that South Africa might have otherwise been. Instead it becomes 'The Land That Happiness Forgot'
- Altbeker says that the 'apartheid-did-it' explanation does not completely satisfy - because South Africans aren't the only nation to suffer long periods of disempowerment. There are many others, like Korea, with low level or non-existent crime.
- Inequality in South Africa is amongst the highest in the world. Altbeker does not mention that Gauteng, where the the richest fraction of the country resides, is also the crime capital for the entire country, by a significant margin. Poverty is also entrenched, and wretchedness the lot of a substantial percentage of our countries population. Altbeker neverthless continues to ask the rational question: But why is crime in this country so VIOLENT?
- Guns and alcohol are very pervasive in South Africa. The percentage of crimes committed when the perpetrators are intoxicated is substantial. Shebeens, Altbeker confirms, are often implicated in the context of criminal behaviour.
- Policing comes under fire, but South Africa's proportion of cops to the generation populations meets the international average. Altbeker goes on to point out the case of Iraq. The population of Iraq is about half of South Africa. The number of law enforcers are far greater, with dismal results.
- Altbeker writes: "We have inherited a society with a particularly high potential for crime." He points out how high this ratio is for women and children. Altbeker reckons that the horrific rape statistics point to an almost subliminal New Struggle: a personal struggle for power, a quest to dominate. And so men take it out on those close to them, less powerful than them. Naturally, this is a disgusting transference of a country's people's deeply ingrained frustrations.
- A high level of criminal activity perpetuates the cycle.
- Demographic factors (a large amount of young, unemployed people, particularly males).
- Add all these together and you reach this incontrovertible result: Violent crime is South Africa is a cultural phenomenon, and it is driven by not one, but by a dearth of perpetuating forces.
I would add the following to Altbeker's assertions. It is a measure of our collective civility, our manners, the extent to which the average citizen seeks to take the law (or lawlessness) into their own hands. Road rage in this country demonstrates the extent to which someone not suffering socio-economic hardship is prone to violence. Particularly in Gauteng, I have experienced incredibly cheeky, antagonistic and provocative driving.
Having ventured through Europe and the Far East, I believe in essence what our country has lost is manners. The manners ordinary people display in Korea is astounding. Even in fast food restaurants, and banks, you;re greeted when you arrive and when you live. You;re greeted with the most polite nomenclature: Ahnyanghashmika.
Objects are always given with the right hand; in itself a gesture of respect. Bow when you say hello to someone. These gesture are powerful. Once back in SA I had to unlearn these gestures.
Manners is one of the mildest of virtues, but nevertheless essential to any society. This is obvious in so many aspects. In South Africa's conventional male-female dalliances the expurgated person quickly shapeshifts into a hatefilled psycho. People are self-indulgent, operating largely out of a selfish self-interested mindset. In internet forums people quickly fall into vitriolic fits. This is obviously by no means unique to South Africa, but I believe we - as a society undergoing rapid transformation - are especially susceptible to identity crisis, and it's side-effects: wearing masks, presenting an image and trying at all costs to hold onto The Happy & Glitzy image, even when it is a front and nothing else. We need to get real, put our feet on the ground and remember the small stuff, and the little downtrodden people all around us.
We are a bitterly schizophrenic country in the sense that we value, for example, our rugby champions. We're inspired. But we're also easily enraged. We have to look at personal circumstances, and all are different. I believe the noise level of stress that effects South Africans is higher than other countries. Unemployment is a factor that affects many. It has affected me, and it raises the stress level considerably. Then there is the constant strain, the eyesore, the yoke of poverty. There are other issues which our collective conscience struggles with, that we may not even acknowledge. AIDS, crime, education, insane car accident statistics - all these may not be acknowledged, or steered towards the government. Yet, the blame must be borne on all, and naturally, it is. One way or another, all of us are connected, and we're all in this together - rich, poor, educated, uneducated, the working class and unemployed - for good and ill.For a background story on this topic, click here.
*Chapter Six of Anthony Altbeker's A COUNTRY AT WAR WITH ITSELF