Sunday Times Columinist Mandli Makhanya - In the Sunday Times 31st December 2006
'State losing legitimacy as it fails to protect citizens from crime'
A colleague related a most depressing tale the other day about an incident that befell his family two weeks before Christmas.
A group of thugs, whom he labelled "barbarians" out to settle a certain score with his cousin, beat his aunt and his cousin with a variety of instruments.
They were "hacked, hammered and beaten with shovels", is how he put it. The aunt died on arrival in hospital and the cousin was badly injured.
This incident was just one of many similarly horrific crimes that took place around South Africa in December, a month in which such horror grabbed the headlines.
The incident fitted neatly with the government's oft-repeated assertion that most murders are committed by people known to the victim. This fact is used as an excuse to show how difficult it is to bring down the 19000-odd annual murder rate dramatically.
Government ministers and officials argue that this phenomenon is a social problem and that the nation needs to repair its moral fabric if we are to deal with the problem.
"These crimes are committed behind closed doors, in secluded spots," Safety and Security Minister Charles Nqakula has said.
On the face of it, it is a fair argument. South Africa is a damaged society, scarred by decades of conflict and a system that dehumanised millions of people. We do need to repair our social fabric and it would help if the government took the whole Moral Regeneration effort as seriously as the civil society partners it has roped into it.
On a practical note, it is impossible to expect the cops to be in every home, tavern, shebeen and social setting where these murders may happen. They cannot be expected to anticipate whether a spouse or lover is about to murder his or her partner out of rage or for some premeditated reason.
Where the argument fails to hold is that it is only half the truth. The reason there is so much murder, rape and other violent crime is that we have gradually allowed criminality to become a norm.
It is the climate of impunity that makes it possible for even non-criminally minded people to contemplate crime.
Every intentional and incidental criminal hides behind the veil of pervasive criminality to commit offences that they are convinced they will get away with.
So you have normally law-abiding people plotting dastardly murders and not feeling a twinge of conscience as they set out to hire hit teams.
How does a normal person begin the search for a potential hit man? Do you ask friends as you would when looking for a reliable carpenter or electrician? How do you broach the subject once you meet your potential hit man? How do you negotiate price? What makes you believe that your crime will be the perfect one?
The obvious answer to all these questions is that we created a climate in which too many crimes are potentially perfect crimes and in which the collective conscience is being eroded.
What sets stable and successful societies apart from lawless ones is the refusal to accept the normality of chaos. Many countries before us have gone down the drain because the citizenry threw its hands in the air and surrendered to criminal forces.
Post-apartheid South Africa has so far been among those societies that has refused to give in to the wayward element. The country's citizens have maintained their outrage at crime.
Unfortunately, the government has proved rather hard of hearing.
So as we enter 2007, we find more and more people losing faith in the ability of the authorities to protect them.
And the danger here - of which I am sure our government is very aware but will not acknowledge - is that crime is now at the point where it is beginning to undermine the legitimacy of the state and our governance system.
How else can you characterise the public reaction to the government's crime statistics, which most people treat with grave suspicion? The statistics, painstakingly collated and analysed by some of the SAPS's brightest minds, are simply pooh-poohed by the public. Instead, South Africans view them as a ploy by the government to hoodwink them into complacency. They believe their government is lying to them.
This goes even further.
When the government unveils new plans to fight crime, the public reacts with scepticism. Once more, people believe their government is fibbing in order to shut them up.
So what happens is that they resort to private arrangements. The more affluent fork out thousands on security companies and fit their houses with gadgets. T hey put their faith in private armies rather than trust the state to protect them.
Among the working classes, where subscribing to private security companies would exceed many household incomes, people resort to more rudimentary methods of protecting themselves. Some communities have formed vigilante groups, which have taken the place of regular community policing forums. In others, where there is less organisation and community cohesion, mob justice does the job.
And the state, of which the criminal syndicates and street thugs are already unafraid, continues to lose the respect and trust of ordinary citizens.
If anything, it is this danger of losing legitimacy in the eyes of the people and control of its citizens that should spur the government into action in 2007.
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