Why is crime violent?

2008-01-02 00:00

Although statistics released by the South African Police Service during 2007 reveal slight decreases in some categories of serious crime, worrying levels of what is often gratuitous violence — unresisting victims shot during hijackings and robberies, elderly farmers tortured, street children set alight and the eyes of robbery victims gouged out — continue. Why is crime in South Africa so violent?

Although there are dysfunctional people who commit heinous crimes all over the world, the social context is crucial in shaping human behaviour. Psychologist Erich Fromm suggests that human societies fall into three categories, with life-affirmative and destructive being the polar extremes. Although these typologies are oversimplified, the extent to which societies promote or condone the use of violence to achieve social ends varies.

There is a long history of violence among ordinary South Africans. Many whites regularly used their guns in their own homes. Townships, even before the rise of state-sponsored violence in the eighties, were characterised by high levels of crime. Young men used violence to combat their powerlessness. As psychologist Rollo May puts it “deeds of violence” are performed largely by those trying to demonstrate that they, too, are significant.

In black families, women were regularly abused by their partners, by men, who, stripped of their dignity by apartheid, displaced their anger on to their partners. Apartheid criminalised a large sector of black society; prisons became schools for turning people jailed for trivial offences into hardened criminals. By the eighties guns were flooding into black-occupied areas to fuel state-sponsored black-on-black violence.

Although apartheid has been dismantled, it would be unrealistic to expect dramatic behaviour change in such a short space of time. Firstly, if children grow up in a culture of violence they will not only be deeply traumatised, but are likely to see violence as an acceptable way of solving problems. Similarly, if they grow up in a family in which men abuse women and they themselves are abused, they are likely to perpetuate this pattern in their own families.

It is tragic that we have not made more effort during the past 13 years to give meaning to the values embodied in the Constitution. Crime continues to pay because the criminal justice system does not deal effectively with those who rely on violence to achieve their goals and children are still socialised in communities and families in which violence is a norm.

Too little has been done to promote stable family life for children. Take the lack of any concerted effort to do away with the iniquitous migrant labour system. During 2007, the hostel area in Umlazi achieved notoriety with attacks by residents on women wearing slacks. These single-sex hostels have long been associated with a plethora of social pathologies, including child abuse, prostitution and horrific violence. The provision of single-sex hostels instead of family accommodation in town encourages men to leave their wives and children in rural areas, and to take up with other women in town. Of course, men need little encouragement because of the continued idealisation of polygyny (more than one wife).

What is conveniently overlooked by men who rationalise the practice as traditional is that in the past it was only better-off men who could afford to take more than one wife. The world in which men now father children by different women is a very different place and it is very often the children who suffer most because their fathers either do not have the means to support them or refuse to do so. These fathers are also often not around to provide crucial love and guidance to their children.

For children to grow up with a respect for human life they need a nurturing family environment. The presence of appropriate male role models cannot be overemphasised. While adequate schooling and sporting resources are of utmost importance for developing individual potential, if children do not learn fundamental life-affirmative values they will wreak destruction in their communities.

If we are serious about decreasing violence we not only need a properly functioning criminal justice system, but also adequate support structures for the family. Families need decent accommodation, not shacks and hostels. The running of Durban hostels is reportedly to be transferred from the province to the eThekwini Municipality. Is it not time for the rate-payers of Durban, who will be footing the substantial bill, to insist that these colonial relics be converted to family accommodation? That would send out a powerful social message, and would be one small step in the right direction.

• Mary de Haas is a social worker and a marriage and family therapist.

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