The killing fields are here

2008-03-03 00:00

Who would think that San Francisco’s Golden Gate Bridge could send a grim warning to us in South Africa about the fatal shootings and stabbings that are such a curse of our society?

Before I explain why, let me reflect on the latest bombshell to hit us about violence. I refer to the recently released report by the SA Human Rights Commission about violence in our schools, with its grim revelations about rape and assault at places that should be centres of safety and respect.

Here is what an official said on the radio during a discussion of the commission’s report: “Our schools are a reflection of society and society has more or less accepted that violence is a way of life.”

My first reaction to these words was indignant rejection. In no way can we regard violence as a way of life. But then her real message hit me: we are getting used to violence. What should by rights be seen as utterly abnormal is coming to be seen as normal. For the perpetrators, violence already is part of how they live. We have to fight this acceptance of the unacceptable, just as we must reject out of hand the ministerial pronouncement last year that those who complain about violence should leave the country.

The facts about violent death that follow give the lie to such a cynical and heartless view. To explain those facts I must return to the Golden Gate Bridge. It featured strikingly in an article in Britain’s New Statesman a year ago about death in the United States, including suicide by jumping from that famous structure at the entrance to San Francisco Bay. What really caught my attention was the figure given for murders in the U.S.: 17 357 in 2004. By mid-2006 the annual number had dropped to 16 692. We can, I think, accept that the annual figure for 2007 will not be much changed.

Before I relate this figure to South Africa, let me acknowledge that the U.S. is seen by many as a violent country. It is a place where serious firearms can be bought over the counter and where film and TV are replete with killings. The violence isn’t evident in the leafy rich suburbs, but in many city centres and poorer districts it certainly is, not to mention the schools and campuses where crazy students have gone on such shocking, random killing sprees of late.

What has all this got to do with murder in South Africa? The U.S.’s annual murder rate reveals that things are far worse here. Our own annual figure for murder in 2007 was 19 202 — yet our population of about 47 million is only about one seventh of the U.S.’s. This means that South Africa’s murder rate in relation to our population is seven times worse than that of a country which many see as very violent indeed.

If these statistics are anywhere near being accurate, and I have done my best to verify them with the help of my former colleagues at the Unilever Ethics Centre, Diana Hawkins and Munyaradzi Murove, then the conclusion is inescapable: murder in South Africa is out of control. We don’t merely have a problem here. We have a crisis. And amid it we have leaders who seem to be snoring away while the guns go off, blood is shed, women and girls violated, our schools terrorised and over 50 people die violently every day. To invoke the gun as a rallying call in such circumstances is irresponsible beyond belief.

The killing fields are not in Cambodia or Gaza or the Balkans. They are right here under our feet.

• Martin Prozesky is an independent ethics lecturer and emeritus professor of the University of KwaZulu-Natal.

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