SA's violent crime has roots in apartheid, says report

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Pretoria - It may be a policy of the past but the evils of apartheid continue to haunt the country, emerging as one the key contributors to the high level of violent crime in South Africa.

The brutality of apartheid; the inequalities the policy gave rise to and the demoralising effect of racism are some of the contributing factors responsible for the violent crimes experienced by South Africans, says the Centre for the Study of Violence and Reconciliation (CSVR).

These findings are contained in a report by the CSVR that was recently released for public comment by the Police Ministry.

The report - a culmination of three years of investigation into the causes and nature of violent crime in South Africa - was compiled by the CSVR at the request of government.

While an exceptionally high rate of violence in not unique to South Africa (having also been noted in South American and Caribbean countries) one of the factors that distinguishes South Africa from these countries is the legacy of apartheid and colonialism, the report says.

It refers to research that found that previous state policies exposed millions of boys and young men to humiliating police harassment and a violent prison system during the apartheid years.

The rule of law was also undermined by the state sponsorship of township violence during that time.

These uniquely South African issues nurtured a culture of violence that has reproduced itself ever since, researchers say.

Add to that, the undermining influence apartheid had on families, often leaving children to grow up in single parent families because of the migrant labour system.

The result, says the report, is that many children, particularly those in poorer sections of South African society, have grown up with an absent father or primary care-giver and plagued by problems such as alcoholism and violence.

International research suggests that children who become persistent offenders are those who tend to grow up with more negative family and school experiences, the report points out.

The institutionalisation of racial domination and explicitly racist ideology that followed the establishment of the Union of South Africa and later the coming to power of the National Party, are also to blame.

"It is reasonable to assume that one of the pervasive consequences institutionalised racism in South Africa is internalised feelings of inferiority which might also be identified as feelings of low self-worth," the report says.

Studies into violence carried out by other countries show a link between feelings of low self worth and a propensity to violence.

"The psychological legacy of institutionalised racism in the form of internalised feelings of low self-worth is likely therefore to be a contributing factor to the problem of violent crime in South Africa," it adds.

The lack of proper policing in townships during the apartheid years also gave rise to the culture of violence that South Africans continue to experience to this day, according to the report.

It points out that under apartheid, the criminal justice system focused on protecting white South Africans from crime, while enforcing apartheid laws on black South Africans.

"A major focus of policing was also suppressing resistance to the apartheid government. Investment in addressing crime in township areas was minimal, contributing to the reliance in township areas on informal mechanisms of justice...The result was that criminal groups and a criminal culture entrenched itself in some township areas."

Moving away from apartheid, the report also found that the core problem of crime in South Africa was a subculture of violence and criminality.

This subculture is characterised by young men "invested in a criminal identity and engaged in criminal careers" that involves active criminal lifestyles.

Another feature of this subculture was the common use of weapons.

"The ability to operate and achieve credibility within this subculture is strongly related to one's readiness to resort to extreme violence using a weapon," the report adds.

The importance of weapons in this subculture was identified as a key driver behind the problem of armed violence in the country.

"Violent offenders who engage in armed violence present the most danger to others and are what gives the current epidemic of violent crime in South Africa its most malevolent edge," the report notes.

The high level of inequality in the country also contributed to the violence. Statistics reveal
that in 2008, the richest 10 percent of households in South Africa earned nearly 40 times more than the poorest 50 percent.

According to international research, societies with high levels of inequality tend to have high levels of violence - an indication that inequality is also a key driver of violence.

The report also identified ambivalent attitudes regarding crime, law, and the normalisation and widespread tolerance of violence as a critical issue.

"This reflects widely held norms and beliefs which see violence as a necessary and justified means of resolving conflict or other difficulties," it says.

Some of the recommendations put forward by the report, include the Development of a policing strategy to address armed violent crime in metropolitan and surrounding areas for addressing armed violence; investing in research aimed at identifying and publicising good practice in local level policing in addressing armed violence; strengthening evidence based crime investigation and prosecution as well as strengthening measures to ensure police integrity.

The report talks about a need to create public areas that are gun free zones and discouraging violence and bullying at schools and focuses on creating weapon free zones in drinking establishments and improving safety in prisons so that it becomes violence free.

The Police Ministry is cautious about the report, welcoming the debate is it likely to spark, but raising concerns about some of its elements.

Secretary for Police, Jenni Irish-Qhobosheane, says nothing "incredibly new" came from the report, questioning whether linking culture or socio-economic conditions to commission of crime, is not a true reflection.

"The report opens a debate on the nature of crime in the country which is useful. However, as a Ministry we need to highlight that we had some serious concerns about some elements of the report," says Irish-Qhobosheane.

The Ministry also says that the concepts of the culture of violence and criminality need to be unpacked and better understood.

The CSVR, on the other hand, believes the report is of considerable value and describes it as ground breaking.

"The overall 'integrated view' of key aspects of the problem of violence is an important achievement of the study and takes the study beyond anything that has been done on the subject in South Africa," it says.