Who are the real victims of crime?

2013-04-12 00:00

PROFESSOR Robert Peacock does not believe SA has a culture of violence. This was an international newspaper headline following the recent Oscar Pistorius case. Clarifying his statement, Peacock, a professor of criminology at UKZN, says that “such stereotyping is racist and defamation to all of us”.

“We only need to look at our negotiated transition to a democracy to demonstrate that the majority of South Africans are, in fact, very peace-loving people. We could have been another Syria. In any culture there are subcultures. Due to economic strain and feelings of hopelessness, individuals in a particular subculture may resort to violence as an empowerment strategy. But these individuals are certainly not indicative of the whole South African population.”

Peacock, who is also vice president of the World Society of Victimology, says we need to be cautious that the demonisation of South African society and focus on interpersonal conflict do not distract from the very real problem of a lack of political will to eradicate corruption and white-collar crime.

His new book, Victimology in South Africa , goes a long way to explaining the facts behind victimisation in society. Peacock edited the book on the subject of why crimes are committed and who the victims are. The answer is not what most people may believe.

“Crime in South Africa has actually gone down. If you look at the crime scenario over the past 20 years, there has been a steady decrease. Initially, after the release of Nelson Mandela and the democratisation process, there was a surge in recorded crime. However, for the first time we also had a better picture of the incidence of crime, as crimes — in particular in our townships — were previously deemed largely inconsequential and thus not recorded.

“But if you look at the past five years, there is a definite downward spiral and that should give us reason to hope. We currently have 39 murders per 100 000, which is 4,5% more than the international average, but the situation is better than before.”

Peacock says that more police officers and lengthy prison sentences are not the solution to crime in South Africa. While a more strategic police service would, of course, always be useful, he believes a criminal justice response to crime is too reactive and does not deal with the real causes. Instead, rather than being so self-serving, our politicians need to commit themselves to the full development of our communities, society and a nation. They are first and foremost the servants of the public.

“We cannot ignore the historical, socioeconomic and political dimensions of crime and victimisation. It is not the offender, but the state that is the greatest obstacle to the wellbeing of all of the participants in the crime conflict. If we look at our victim populations, it is the victims of apartheid who are once again ‘picking up the tab’ for the injustices in society.

“There is a common misperception that if you are wealthy, you are going to be a victim of crime, but the opposite is quite true.

“If you are wealthy, you are living in a very protective context, with ample means to live in a safer suburb and to buy protective services like security services and burglar alarms, which are all deterrents of crime.

“But the marginalised in our society are, by virtue of their position, the most exposed to criminal activity. They are also the ones who benefit least from the services and programmes made available to crime victims.”

The book also reveals a definite pattern between the offender and the victim. Peacock says: “Research shows that offenders are more frequently victimised than non-offenders.”

Interesting, too, is the fact that those who suffer from mental illnesses are not more likely to commit crimes. In fact, they are more likely to become victims. The idea that a criminal is a “mad person” is straight out of a Hollywood script and has no basis in reality.

Peacock says we also need to take note of the cyclical nature of abuse. With reference to the horrific statistics of rape, incest and spousal abuse — you would be hard-pressed to find a criminal who was not, at one stage, abused as a child or who witnessed abuse of his or her mother. Child victims do not get any help and cannot deal with their emotions, and, at a later stage, they become the abuser or criminal who repeats the behaviour.

“It is ironic that when the state, in the form of the court, seeks to punish the criminals, it seeks to mete out a punishment or rather to inflict pain on the offender, who, often than not, comes from a family that is in severe stress. The offender probably grew up in a socioeconomic environment that was severely deprived of access to services, recreational activities, housing shortages, severe poverty and unemployment.”

The book looks repeatedly at the way justice is meted out and poses the question: Can or should we be doing this differently?

“To use pain [punishment] to deal with pain is certainly not very advanced. It raises questions about our sense of citizenship in a civilised society. Should we not be seeking to forgive and to heal?”

There also exists a stereotype of those who are almost considered deserving of death. Their murders are never properly investigated and they are the forgotten victims. They are the sex workers, the street kids, foreign nationals and the unemployed, whose deaths hardly even make news headlines. Their identities make them less deserving of our empathy, compassion and assistance, and, because of double standards, they become socially expendable and forgotten victims.

“The idea that it is usually a stranger who is a murderer is also not true,” says Peacock. “In 80% of cases, the offender is a person known to the victim. We have also discovered that in many instances, the victim did something to provoke the situation. The stereotype that the victim was just a helpless passive bystander is not true either.

“Our research shows that most victims were involved in a physical struggle or altercation with the perpetrator. The majority of victims of murder are usually found in dangerous places, and are known to have dangerous associations and to engage in high-risk activities such as crime.”

The book looks at the present court system and its laws, also the reluctance of victims to report certain crimes and the unwieldy bureaucratic system that makes victims feel as if they are being abused a second time by the state. When cases are poorly investigated and the victims are given no sense of justice or closure, they feel let down and betrayed.

“The citizens of the country get a sense that the government is trying to do something when they hear that more police officers are being hired or that more drunk drivers are being arrested. But the truth is that when there is a spotlight on minor infractions, it trivialises issues and gives a false façade that there is a semblance of authority.”

Peacock argues that the law is based on the actions of a “reasonable person” and is not set in stone. He believes it has to be flexible and serve the interests of the victims.

He says that, historically, African culture used to have a big component of restorative justice, where the offender would have to make amends to the injured party by performing an action or making payment. This would also help appease the community’s feelings towards the individual. He believes that this element would be more useful in future sentencing options. “I hope this book will provoke thought and change,” he says. “I believe we have lifted the lid and offered those who care an insight.”

• trish.beaver@witness.co.za

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