by Lionel Isaacs

A version of this story was published by in February.

Cape Town. The early hours of the morning on December 31st, 2009. I’m driving up Long Street on my way back to the holiday flat I’ve rented with some friends.

I pull up at a robot. There’s a commotion to my right. I look over. A white Citi Golf is parked, with three men inside. A man and woman are on the pavement just behind the car arguing. From what I can tell, it looks as if she is trying to keep the man from leaving. Maybe she doesn’t want him to leave her, or for them to leave without her. In any case, she has a bottle in her hand. I only notice this when the car start to pull of, because when it does, she throws the bottle at the back of the car, it hits the bumper and breaks. The car stops. The three occupants jump out and run over to her. I see at least two of them punch her in the head. She falls to the ground. Two or three of them start stomping on her head, almost immediately she stops moving. All of the men get into the car and drive off. This all happens within a few seconds.

I’m dumbfounded by this.

My eye catches the commotion in my peripheral vision, the bottle is thrown, by the time I’ve registered amazement at the sight of a group of grown men punching a woman to the ground, I’m further amazed that they would proceed to kick her motionless form on the pavement.

By the time I realize how fundamentally wrong this is, they are driving away, I look up the road and see police lights. I race up the street to tell the police what happened. Not the least bit alarmed or surprised, the officer in the passenger seat closest to me calmly confirms the directions with me before they drive off.

I drive home.

South African is a violent place. Improving from our number 1 spot in the early 00’s, we remain in the top 10 internationally for murders per 100,000 people (37, almost twice as much as present day Iraq, at 21).

We are a world leader in violence. There aren’t a lot of things that European experts flock to our shores to learn. Trauma medicine is one. Western European and Scandanivian doctors and surgeons visit hospitals like Chris Hani Baragwanath in Soweto to experience seeing and treating injuries- wounds by gunshot, knife, bottle, axe- that they’d be unlikely to encounter in their home countries, at least not very often. You see, we pile up more damaged human beings on a Friday night, then they’d personally encounter in months or years in their home countries.

I once worked security at a nightclub in Norway. Working in the back of the club, I was alarmed to see that the guys at the door were not frisking the patrons as they came in. Instinctively concerned that any drunken, rowdy partygoer I might have to restrain could be armed with a knife (I had already been told that guns were rare in Norway), I rushed to alert the manager. He looked at me incredulously. “Knife? In Norway?” He burst out laughing at the skittish South African, and went back to selling tickets.

We have the highest incidence of rape per capita in the world, with a disturbingly high proportion of sexual violence directed at children and babies.

South Africa is a dangerous place to be a woman. I am aware of this. I knew this. But I didn’t know this, the way I know it now.

The discussion around how to deal with South Africa’s extraordinary levels of violent crime is limited. It goes as follows. The media, sensitive mainly to predominantly white and middle class fears about crime, and corresponding sensibilities around crime and punishment, frames the debate as follows: violent criminals terrorize seemingly with impunity, thus we need more police, higher conviction rates, and harsher sentencing. This is what needs to be done to deal with violent crime.

This conversation is misleading, and ultimately unhelpful. It is unhelpful because it never addresses the root cause of our society’s extraordinary capacity for violence. A rash of cash-in-transit robberies is ‘a crime problem’. What we have, as some writers have thoughtfully pointed out, including Antony Altbeker in his 2007 book on South Africa’s extraordinarily violent crime epidemic, is “a country at war with itself.”

Our country’s extraordinary violence will not be addressed by more cops, convictions, and prisons. Our society’s stakeholders- government, political parties, communities, citizens, academics and intellectuals, spiritual and traditional leaders- must begin a thoughtful, introspective national conversation which seeks to understand why we are as violent as we are. Only then can we figure out how to change this tragic state of affairs.

Violent crime is not a function of poverty. In 2008, the World Bank ranked South Africa number 66 out of 166 countries in terms of GDP per capita ($10,109). Senegalwas ranked 133rd ($1,772). I spent some time in Dakar.Brutal assault and rape of women is unheard of there. A woman can walk the streets of Dakar wearing whatever she likes, at any time of night, and not worry about being attacked. Our entrenched inequality is a more likely contributor, but it does not explain why women and children are so often brutalized.

I suspect the roots of violent crime involve the following components.

The brutality which underpinned first colonial dispossession and the subsequent Apartheid regime, ingrained the use of force in the fabric of our society. In addition to increasing the use of violence to dominate others, the brutality of Apartheid caused the oppressed to react. The widespread violent resistance which quickened the pace of our liberation- making the country ungovernable in the 1980’s- once unleashed, could not be placed back in a box post-1994. It is an unfortunate, inadequately explored historical legacy, that our willingness to break the law, reluctance to cooperate with police, and capacity to use violence are on the flipside of the coin of the struggle against Apartheid.

Furthermore, violence has been a part of life for black South Africans in the townships long before 1994. The violent gangs and criminals that sprang up in the ghettoes, exploiting the space given by the country’s authorities who were hardly concerned with crimes non-political in nature and confined to black areas, have been a part of the fabric of township life for some time.

Some of our most high-profile, doggedly persistent crime trends, i.e. cash in transit heists, have demonstrated military precision and tactics. Is this a function of people who have received military training in preparation to fight against the Apartheid regime who were not absorbed into the SANDF? As countries from DRC toIraq have discovered, idle former soldiers are a major societal risk.

South Africa has overtaken Brazil as the world’s most unequal society, as measured by the GINI coefficient. Our long history of inequality has excluded large swathes of the population. Among these- thanks in large part to shameful, ongoing failures in our education system which took place before and after 1994- are millions of young men with little or no education, and few marketable skills. Such individuals have little investment in a society which, on the one hand celebrates the possession and ostentatious display of material wealth, and on the other hand seemingly denies them opportunities to participate economically. There is nothing more dangerous than a young man, with few discernible constructive options, who feels he has nothing to lose. We have millions of these young men. Our country’s population is disproportionately young, with a median age of 24.4 years, compared to the USA’s 36.7 years, itself younger than its Western European kin- UK (40.2); Germany (43.8)- and fellow advanced nation Japan (43.8). As Altbeker pointed out, violent crime being primarily the preserve of young men, ours is at least partly a demographic problem.

This is especially significant in a society such as ours, with men traditionally expected to play the role of provider. This finds practical expression in various socially significant ways. Whether it is the rituals around finding and securing a wife, such as paying lobola and/or giving gifts to the prospective wife’s family, or the general way a man is expected to move in society, such as sponsoring feasts for family, friends and neighbors to celebrate personal and cultural milestones, the South African man is expected to provide. Sociologists have recently begun to link violent crime in various countries around the globe with a crisis of masculinity occasioned by the decline of industries such as manufacturing and their concomitant opportunities for unskilled and low skilled men.

Our flawed discourse around criminality, fixated on sending more criminals to prison, ignores the souls already there. Many of our prisons are living hell, where even minor, non-violent offenders are likely to become violent criminals with upgraded criminal skills as they encounter hardened criminals, overcrowding, prison brutality, rape, gangs, drugs, and prison corruption. It is said that you can learn a lot about a society by spending time in its prisons. We don’t care what happens inside our prisons, rationalizing that they shouldn’t be comfortable, and criminals can avoid their despair by not getting locked up in the first place. Unfortunately, society has to reckon with the vast majority of criminals upon their release. We had better reckon with the question of whether prisons will be places of punishment and crushing despair, or places of rehabilitation and potential uplift.

We need more social workers; better functioning schools; widespread arts, sports and recreation facilities for youth; youth work and mentorship programs; well-lit public areas; affordable housing in mixed-income communities with amenities, purposefully designed to be healthy places to live; without these things, we find ourselves in a never ending cycle of despair, looking at the police and justice system- reactive forces by definition- to solve crime, itself only a symptom of social problems in our society. Solving problems like ours require interventions in social behavior, education, health, the built environment, sports and recreation, and so on.

More and better policing is necessary. But we should not kid ourselves into thinking that more police patrols will stop the man who kills his wife and children in their home, or the wife who has her husband killed. A violent society is not made less so by more prisons. The United States incarcerates more of its citizens than any other country in the world- 1 out of 100 of its citizens, ahead of even China- but also has the highest murder rate, by far, of any Western developed nation.

The USA has vaunted law enforcement agencies- whose resources and sophistications have spawned a hundred police procedural shows a la ‘CSI’- along with the death penalty, and politicians who routinely pander to fears about crime with ever more draconian laws, such as mandatory minimum sentences for scores of different categories of crime, which even judges have recently begun to revolt against for forcing them to hand out unreasonably long sentences, and three strikes laws which mandate life in jail after three felony convictions.

If a country with such deterrents cannot permanently reduce its level of violence, perhaps we, the new kid on the block of democracies, must consider charting a different course? The police and the justice system must effectively respond to and punish crimes, definitely. Prospective lawbreakers must expect to be brought to justice. Ultimately though, the discourse on violent crime must ask the question, why are we so violent in the first place?