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THE WAY WE LIVED.  3. Poverty, Crime and Violence.  [8min read]

Apartheid Museum, Gauteng, South Africa–>

Crime and violence were always endemic in South Africa.  Poverty, ill health, crime, and violence are historically the four Horsemen of the South African Apocalypse. Previously, these were exclusive Black issues. The breaking down of apartheid’s artificial barriers exposed all citizens to these problems.

Violence breeds violence. This goes back to the wars of conquest between local African tribes and European colonisers, settlers, Voortrekkers, and, finally the bigoted rulers of the mid-twentieth century. Ethnic cleansing and military or police violence were part of the system of global conquest and brutalisation.

No one questioned the 1970‘s military communiqués of “people killed as they ran with terrorists” in South Africa’s border wars. Similar language prevailed in Vietnam. Modern parlance regards this lot as “collateral damage.”

South African political prisoners were tortured, maimed, killed, or made to disappear. The transition from the violence of the country’s authorities into the ghettoes is like an abusive family household – son imitates father, and eventually, the whole family will manifest this behaviour.  The Truth and Reconciliation hearings highlighted what a shocking, violent abuser of its people the state was.

Cape Town had a reputation as one of the safer areas in the country.  I think that the city’s stunning beauty lulled people into a feeling of false security.  Cape Town hospital emergency departments were wonderful for learning trauma medicine – no end of stab wounds to stitch, blood collections in chests to drain, and more.

The smorgasbord of daily trauma was worst over weekends when the 1960‘s hospital trauma centres resembled battle zones. The victims of blood-soaked weekends hardly made it into the media unless it involved a White person.  The spilled blood, guts and brains were a constant, reminder of the social morass and poverty out in the slums of the Cape Flats.  It was far worse than  my New Zealand or Australian experience.

In the 1970’s, my life became crime-centric. Almost everything was looked at with concerns for personal and family safety.  I carried a knife and knew how to open it quickly.  Looking over my shoulder was second nature, and all car windows and doors were reflexly locked.   I chose safer driving routes home when I travelled at night. Attacks could be random, robbery the primary objective. Car hijackings, rape, and murder were gratuitous optional extras.

Later developments in Cape Town saw a proliferation of razor-wire-topped fences with a mushrooming of “armed response signs.”  Monitoring security vehicles with armed drivers are parked every few blocks in many suburbs.  Every household has one or two dogs for burglar-proofing. The country probably is the world’s crime capital for murder, car hijacking, burglary and assaults.

Coming from a place of significant poverty, high unemployment, social depravity and no social welfare, one had an easy justification for these illegal activities. In South Africa, it was almost one’s revolutionary duty to steal from White employers. There was a warped justification in sharing a“gelukkie” – a bit of luck. Unfortunately, crime became a lifestyle option that turned in on the Black community.

Gangsterism and the nefarious drug trade blights all three of the countries I have lived in.  “Tik” in South Africa, “p” in New Zealand and “ice or speed ” in Australia undermines large swathes of all communities.  The fierce addiction spawns crime of the more violent kind.  Is there a common dysfunctional element that makes such disparate communities all succumb to this modern day scourge?  Gang turf battles are frequent. There is a rite of passage to join a gang, and armed robbery or a killing ensure entry.

The Group Areas artificially created cavernous divides in South Africa with much opulence alongside depraved depths of poverty and neglect.  The “haves” and “have-nots” mostly translated to Whites and Blacks. Whites never lived in shanties. Our township slums had little or no electricity, no storm water drainage and limited social facilities and amenities except for an occasional tap and night soil collection.

The worst shanties were made from tarpaulin and wood, others from corrugated iron sheets. These structures were home to hundreds of thousands, and they often flooded out in winter, or burnt down when killer fires spread from one flimsy structure to the next. Diseases were rampant, tuberculosis common.  Gangs thrived in the dysfunctional environment. Don Pinnock highlights this in his recent book,Gang Town(2016).

Already in the 1970’s the Mother City was called “Rape Town” in a rare newspaper report of its sexual violence. At the same time “rape culture” was introduced as a concept in the USA. South Africa is arguably the rape capital of the world.

Some recent reports have indicated that the present day murder statistics in South Africa are less than they were in the last decade of the apartheid years.  Unlike crime, murder is the one statistic that can be compared quite accurately.  All it needs is a dead body! For the record, New Zealand and Australia have murder rates around 1/100,000 compared with a rate of 32/100,000  in South Africa.

It’s easy to see why there’s a queue of South Africans at the immigration offices of other countries! Hearing Whites complain is almost amusing. In pre-democratic days, they never experienced the levels of crime and violence that prevailed in the Black areas. I believe this twin evil of brutality is the worst legacy of the Apartheid years. To many Whites, this is a new phenomenon, a by-product of majority rule. To people of colour, this is a continuum of what was the daily experience for many.


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