Saturday, 18 August 2012

South Africa: Where Life Is Cheap and Death Even More So

One of the top search terms on this blog is “crime in South Africa”, followed by “personal stories of crime in South Africa”.  I don’t know why people are searching those terms, but in my mind there are two main categories of searchers:

1.  Those wanting to visit South Africa and wanting to know if the horror stories are really true.

2.  Those who are still living in South Africa and have begun to wonder if there isn’t something wrong with this picture.

I once belonged to the latter category of people.  I knew many people who were raped, murdered, gang-raped, robbed, burgled, held up at gun point or hijacked.  I was held up at gunpoint in a bank robbery, my home was broken into while I was at home and my dog saved my life, I was attacked in my car. 

Life is cheap in South Africa and death is even more so.  I finally comprehended just how extreme the situation is there following a dinner party two years ago.  We were 7 women having dinner in a flat in London.  I was pressed to talk about the crime in South Africa and as always, I hesitated.  Talking about it leaves me feeling raw and vulnerable and it always, without fail, ushers in nightmares, panic attacks and generalised anxiety in the weeks following it.

But on that evening, I felt safe amongst 6 other women and I talked.  At one point, one of the women left the table and soon after made her excuses and left.  It turns out that my story filled her with such terror that she felt quite traumatised.  In her world, she didn’t know anyone who had died from unnatural causes, no victims of violent crime, barely any victims of crime at all.  Sure, she reads the newspapers, listens to the news.  But her inner circle had never been touched by violence, crime and inhumanity and that is entirely possible in countries other than South Africa. 

All of this has been in the forefront of my mind for the past ten days.  I want to talk about it and raise awareness because I believe that every South African, regardless of age, race, gender, sexual orientation, religion or class has the right to safety, security and dignity.  Four opinion pieces caught my attention over the past 10 days.

Take your Women’s Day and shove it” [Helen Moffett, 8 August 2012, Books Live]

Helen discussed the parades and money spent on Women’s Day celebrations in South Africa and the laughing stock they had become in the face of a situation where women are raped, murdered, beaten and violated each and every day in South Africa.

Helen was a little bit angry and in light of the situation, I have to ask why we aren’t all more than a little bit angry:

Our rape stats are a global disgrace (Goddess, how many times do I have to FUCKING say this, the WORST in the world for a country not at war – the scale is unimaginable, the suffering ditto), black lesbians have “carve me up and smash my brains in” signs stamped on their backs, rural women and children live in relentless, grinding misery and poverty HUGELY exacerbated by patriarchal strictures, which are of course absolutely sacred (and the fact that the Traditional Courts Bill, which would render these women even more helpless and wretched, is actually allowed to pollute national airtime is a bloody disgrace)

[Read more about South Africa’s Women’s Day]

Women don't deserve a day” [David Moseley, 14 August 2012, News 24]

Last weekend, violent protests erupted in Lonmin mine and David Moseley remarked that: “There is always something terrible happening in South Africa”.

He referenced Helen’s post and then went on to talk about his greatest fear, that someone he knows and loves will be raped.  It is a valid concern in South Africa where “women are getting raped (almost every 17 seconds in South Africa)” and “a survey … conducted amongst 1 500 Soweto school children … discovered that a quarter of all boys said that "jackrolling" (their lingo for gang rape) was "fun"”.

He closes by saying that:

Women don't deserve a day at all.

They deserve every day, every week, every month, every year. They deserve our undying attention. They deserve a country where they can live without fear.

They deserve life.

It can be really frustrating speaking to South Africans sometimes as their need to defend their country and all of its faults battles with their need to talk about the horrors that they face.  Ultimately it seems that they fail to grasp one small point.  Each South African has a fundamental human right to live safe from physical, bodily, emotional or psychological harm.  Especially where it is being dished out to them in such an aggressive, continuous and gratuitous manner.  While the government wraps itself up in corruption, nepotism, cronyism and negligence, the citizens of South Africa are dying.

Where is the Outrage?” [Camilla Bath, 16 August 2012, Eye Witness New]

On Thursday morning, Camilla Bath EWN Deputy Editor in Johannesburg asked the following question:

Have we become so insensitive in Gauteng, in South Africa, that we all but disregard the unspeakable violence that’s unfolding on our own doorstep? Are we too callous to care, too inundated with tragedy and violence on a daily basis to truly take stock of what’s happening around us? Have our ideas of what qualifies as shocking been warped to such an extent that we no longer see people being burnt and hacked to death as utterly unacceptable and appalling?

Her words are especially chilling and especially relevant in light of the tragic events that took place at Lonmin mine just hours later.  Bath spoke of the disturbing violence taking place at the mine and the murders of miners, police officers and security guards and yet she wondered why this was not even reaching South Africa’s newspapers.  The sad fact is that South Africans are so jaded, so used to violence and crime that I found more reporting on the violence in Lonmin on international news sites than on South African sites.

Bath concluded by stating that, “This type of brutality is never deserving of anything other than outrage and disgust. Why the violence really started and who is really behind it are, for now, irrelevant. Right now, it simply needs to be stopped”. 

It was stopped, in the most violent, traumatic manner.  By the end of the day, 34 miners had been shot dead by police in what the police vehemently deny constitutes a massacre.

Dear black person” [Ferial Haffajee, 16 August 2012, News 24]

It seems strange to close this piece on crime with mention of an opinion piece on politics, poverty and racism.  But it is very important and absolutely relevant in the South African context.

South Africa has one of the highest GINI coefficients worldwide which means that the gap between richest and poorest is wider than any other country, including Brazil.  The government is absolutely corrupt and citizens suffer without electricity, water, education, healthcare and housing.  There was some progress in the 1990s towards housing, jobs, education and healthcare but in the second decade of the 21st century we see a country torn apart by poverty, corruption, inequality and racism. 

It is clear that South Africa is a country on the brink and in the midst of all of this chaos, police opened fire on striking miners, killing 34 human beings.  I’d like to say that it feels like a return to the Apartheid era but back then we lived in a police state under a permanent State of Emergency.  I’m not going to even try predict the effect of adding state-sanctioned extreme violence to the mix of lawlessness and chaos but I can guess that it can’t be good.  How much more has to go wrong in South Africa before a true leader steps in and cleans up both on the streets and in the government?



  1. It seems as if the new elite in South Africa have forgotten the suffering which the masses had to go through recently.
    Failure to correct society's ills will result in further insecurity for all South African's citizens.

  2. I am just today reading this post. Having seen the after effects on the people of Rustenburg and the country as a whole, I can honestly say the consequences of the Lonmin tragedy will be with us for years to come. A country in a death spiral. A country that is yet to let go of the hurt and trauma of the past to say "Enough!" and start the immense task of building up a new, proud people that are not forever looking back. We are not there yet. And I pray with all my heart that I will get to see a day when children again have hope.

  3. Absolutely Rene. I hope I live to see that day too.


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