In recent weeks crime-weary South Africans have been shocked by the sheer brutality of many criminal incidents, especially those in which the victims are women and children. In the absence of sufficient comparative data it is difficult to assess whether the incidence of such crimes is increasing, but the prevalence of rape and sexual abuse of primary and pre-primary school children appears to be growing.
Although there are dysfunctional people who commit heinous crimes in all societies, the social context is crucial in shaping human behaviour. People exhibiting what psycho-analyst Erich Fromm terms malignant aggression, including acts of cruelty, are used by totalitarian states to implement their brutal repressive measures. In a well governed democracy the damage they can do is minimised by the criminal justice system but even then, as acts of terrorism show, such individuals continue to pose a risk to their fellow citizens.
South Africa is a society damaged by its history, shaped by over a century of structural and inter-personal violence. Many whites, armed to the teeth, used their guns in their own homes, with the country’s rate of family killings among the highest in the world. In black families women were regularly abused by their partners who, stripped of their dignity by apartheid, displaced their anger on their womenfolk.
Townships, even before the rise of State-sponsored violence in the 1980s, were crime-ridden. As in ghettos all over the world, young men used violence to combat their powerlessness. As psychologist Rollo May puts in his book Power and Innocence ‘Deeds of violence…are performed largely by those trying to establish their self-esteem, to defend their self-image, and to demonstrate that they, too, are significant’. May’s words assist in understanding why protest action, including by unemployed and badly educated youths, is so violent.
Apartheid criminalised a large sector of black society for petty offences, and its prisons often turned offenders into hardened criminals affiliated to prison gangs. By the 1980s guns were flooding into black occupied areas to fuel State-sponsored ‘black-on-black’ violence and mandrax was used as an apartheid chemical warfare weapon.
Little has been done in the past twenty three years to deal with the violent legacy of the past and give meaning to life-affirmative Constitutional values. Violent crime continues to pay because the criminal justice system does not deal effectively with it – spawning further violence in the form of vigilante activities. The organised crime networks of old flourish, and drugs flood urban and rural areas. Paramilitary training continued into the 2000s and may contribute to the ranks of well trained hit men whose services are used for, among other things, taxi and political killings – and the home invasions carried out with military precision. Guns appear easily accessible as huge caches from the 1990s remain unaccounted for.
Policing has further deteriorated in the past decade because of extremely poor management – linked to political interference. The conviction rate for serious crimes is notoriously low. There is an urgent need to address these problems but the political will appears lacking.
It is also essential to address the fundamental causes of this type of crime. Violence in the home knows no racial boundaries but colonialism was responsible for the destruction of family life of millions of black people, especially through the migrant labour system. This legacy has not been addressed, as evidenced by the continued existence of hostels, and rural-underdevelopment. The government has also failed to engage with shack dwellers about upgrading their accommodation. Too many family groupings remain fragmented, with single mothers struggling to care for their children in the absence of emotional and financial support from fathers.
Children need a stable family grouping of caring adults who do not abuse them, and who provide them with the type of sound moral education which is essential for the development of a conscience which can distinguish between right and wrong. Male role models who respect women are crucial for the development of a sense of self esteem and worth in both boys and girls. Far too many children continue to grow up in an environment where violence is the norm – and then perpetuate this cycle themselves. Many then experience a dysfunctional education system which may include further abuse, including from educators, and become victims of drug-pedlars.
The government has failed the youth, but there are many ways for concerned citizens, including in faith based organisations, to assist. These include initiatives to supplement education, to combat drug use, and to develop sporting, artistic and musical talents. Gardening skills environmental work are important. These are but some of the ways in which trustworthy adult role models can work with children and youth to develop their innate talents and their self esteem so that they do not have to resort to violence to demonstrate that they, too, are significant human beings.

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