The politicisation of crime in South Africa


DANIEL NINA works as a lawyer with the Community Peace Foundation in Cape Town. Born in Puerto Rico, Nina has spent the last six years in South Africa. He liaises closely with the ANC government's minister of justice on criminal law and the court system. Nina freely admits this poses "a great political contradiction" for an activist who believes that fundamental change takes place outside the existing state apparatus, but at the same time "being coopted by the state to produce policy". Nina spoke to Green Left Weekly's NORM DIXON while in Sydney recently as a visiting scholar at the Macquarie University School of Law.

Read any mainstream newspaper or magazine feature article about post-apartheid South Africa and it is almost certain that listed high among the "challenges" facing the African National Congress government is "crime". It is repeatedly asserted that since majority rule was won in 1994, levels of crime have risen and as a result foreign investment is being scared away. South African newspapers are saturated with hair-raising accounts of murder, rape, car-jacks and general mayhem.

The National Party, the far-right Afrikaner parties and the Zulu-chauvinist Inkatha Freedom Party have all chimed in with calls for the reintroduction of the death penalty, and even some senior leaders of the ANC have agreed. The supposedly "liberal" Democratic Party campaigns almost solely on "law and order".

Crime in South Africa is being politicised, Daniel Nina told Green Left Weekly. With the banner of apartheid now discredited, reactionaries are rallying beneath the flag of fighting "crime". It has the most attraction for those who fear the loss of the privileges they enjoyed under apartheid.

The advantage of the crime issue for the "new right" is that it attracts not just the white population but other racial minorities whose unfounded fears of African domination can be manipulated, as well as a growing African business and professional class which fears its poverty-stricken sisters and brothers.

This campaign to create the "perception that crime is out of control", says Nina, is being led by South Africa's predominantly white capitalist class, which directly controls about 80% of the country's economic activity.

This perception, Nina insists, does not match reality. A recent study was commissioned by Nedcor, a major banking company. "The key hypothesis they wanted to prove was that crime was a deterrent for international capital to invest in South Africa, but when they interviewed 24 managing directors of multinational companies, 70% said crime is not a problem."

These managers said the reason they had not boosted their investment significantly was because the labour movement in South Africa is too powerful and that, until last July, the ANC government hadn't expressed clearly a commitment to a neo-liberal economic policy.

"Now it is very clear. Mandela says that we are going to privatise, we are going to deregulate. That is what international corporate capital wants to hear — not necessarily South African capital, which is going to suffer when they must compete with the 'tigers' and European and US capital in the manufacturing sector."

Crime levels do not seriously damage the econom, but "the perception has to kept alive" because capital wants reassurance that the state will control the working class and poor as they become impatient with the ANC's conservative economic policies.

The most serious legacies of apartheid that contribute to crime, says Nina, are the anger of the black population and inequality. "Anger against those most see as responsible for apartheid will not disappear in one generation", he pointed out.

"The latest report of the World Bank on South Africa says it is one of the most unequal countries. The ratio between the top 5% and the bottom 20% is 1:19. The average in most other countries in 1:6 or 1:7. Whatever the government's good intentions about addressing inequality, as soon as they compromised with international capital and the IMF/World Bank by accepting neo-liberal politics, their commitment to equality vanished", Nina said.

"The best example is the provision of housing. The latest statistics available show only 8000 houses have been provided in two and half years. The ANC promised to provide 1 million houses by the year 2000. That requires 250,000 to be built a year. The government now only promises to create an 'enabling environment' for the right to a house. They don't promise houses. This means that the banks have to agree to lend money to those on the lowest incomes. Maybe by 2020 some might have a house.

"If the ANC continues pushing neo-liberal economic development, I think we are facing disaster. How long can people wait under the stress of inequality? If inequality is addressed at the pace of a tortoise, there will be serious challenges to the regime, to this society. There will be an increased level of tension, and more people will take options that are considered illegitimate", Nina told Green Left Weekly.

No-one knows the real levels of crime in South Africa, Nina said. "There are no formal statistics. Crime has always been bad in the African townships, but residents organised their own means to solve the problem. Crime is an issue now because white communities are being affected. Crime is now representative."

Nor is crime a national phenomenon, Nina added. "Seventy-five per cent of reported car-jackings are in Gauteng, where Johannesburg is. Most take place in Soweto, the biggest township in the country. But all the press talk about is the car-jackings in the white suburb of Sandton, which is the most powerful neighbourhood in the country, where extremely rich people live."

The press is also very selective about what it considers to be crime, Nina points out. "Nedcor's survey found that violent crime cost 15 billion rand each year. White collar crime causes losses of 13 billion rand, yet that is not talked about. They are not talking about environmental crimes, domestic violence, they not talking about rape — feminist groups allege that there is one rape every 18 seconds in South Africa. They talk just about crime against property. When corporate crime is mentioned, big business says, 'We handle that in-house'.

"Crime is not a problem for the 80% of the population who are African. The community organisations, organised through the South African National Civic Organisation, continue to demand more housing, better education and jobs. Their demands are not about more police."

In Cape Town, an organisation called People Against Gangsterism and Drugs, based within the coloured community, has risen to prominence through mass actions and the vigilante murder of a high-profile drug dealer and gang leader. Nina rejects the view, held by some on the South African left, that PAGAD represents something progressive.

PAGAD reflects the fears of the coloured community about being ruled by the African majority. They believe they are under siege. While also having suffered racial oppression under apartheid, the coloured community was granted some privileges in terms of housing and employment compared to Africans. These fears have been manipulated by the NP.

Nina added that the leadership of PAGAD is drawn overwhelmingly from the class of small shopkeepers and professionals in the coloured community of the Western Cape. The leadership is conservative Muslims who call for South Africa to be an Islamic state.

"PAGAD has focused on so-called gangsters. They are not a real Mafia, not real syndicates. They are just small-time crooks who sell drugs on local corners, run extortion rackets or resell stolen goods. PAGAD started with the gangsters but a few weeks later one of their branches in Durban said they would go after the gay community and prostitutes. Next will be the immigrants. PAGAD is a reactionary movement which organises, as fascism has done before, around popular fears and ideas of moral pressure and repression."