A monster with a big diet: South African narratives of fear and crime (Guest post by Claudia Forster-Towne)

In speaking about South Africans and their emotions in my previous post it became clear (thanks to the wise words of Mats) that there is a need to discuss the fear experienced (real or perceived) by South Africans in their day to day lives.

Yes, South Africa (SA) is a violent place. Crime levels are high, as can be proven by a plethora of statistics and lived experiences. Recently the OSAC Report on Crime in SA labeled the situation as ‘critical’ in Johannesburg, Pretoria, Durban, and Cape Town. Crime Stats SA ‘boasts’ a series of facts relating to crime in South Africa such as “Over 161,000 people have been murdered in South Africa since 2004” and “5900 crimes are reported to the South African Police Service (SAPS) everyday”. Personally I do not know a single person that has not been a victim of some or other crime, several of them particularly violent including armed robbery and kidnapping.

So violent crime does exist in the country and I have no desire to prove that it does not. But to what extent is South African fear (as mentioned at the end of my last post) a product of actual lived crime experiences or of entrenched discourses and narratives that are continually produced along class, geographical, racial and gendered lines?

Any braai (BBQ) or informal gathering you attend there is bound to be a mention of crime, it could stem from something ‘small’ such as someone’s wallet being stolen to talk of corruption and the general ‘rampant’ crime in the country. These narratives are told and retold continually: Visitors are warned against walking around at night, certain areas are labeled ‘hotspots’ for crime, news is filled with grueling details of crimes committed, and the prevalence of private security companies all contribute to the narrative that South Africa is not a safe place and it turn (in my mind at least) contributes to the discourse of fear in the country.

I am considering to what extent narratives such as these serve as self-fulfilling prophecies. I by no means think that South Africans should go into a state of denial, or remove their barbed wire fencing or the pepper-spray safely attached to their key chains. But maybe, through the very talk we speak we reproduce the fear we are hoping to be free of.

I have done a fair share of travelling from the safety of the streets in Sweden and South Korea to cities such as Ho Chi Min City and Bangkok and in all of these places I felt infinitively safer than I have ever felt in South Africa.

Despite warnings by some of my Swedish colleagues that crime does exist in their country I shrug off their concerns and think to myself “they have no idea”. I have put my fear on a pedestal and consider the crime fear of other nations as minor in comparison. The discourse of SA being the country with the most violent crime in the world has not escaped my psyche and I find that strolling down the streets of Bangkok at some ungodly hour a mostly fearless experience.

So the question is, to what extent has our talk of fear and violence in the country generated our fear, fed it like a hungry monster with an insatiable appetite until we have become unable to move from our locked car doors or high fences (if we have the luxury of having them). To what extent has our belief in the violence created it? I wonder, if today, all of SA’s elite and fortunate middle class walked to work (or even to the shops for that matter), if they rolled down their car windows, or if they disabled their alarms, I wonder how long before a narrative of trust would ensue creating a more peaceful environment. Maybe all it takes is a plunge into the dark abyss of crime with a mind that is open to seeing that most people want peace. Maybe a narrative of trust would be a better self-fulfilling prophecy. Or maybe I am just sporting a delusional utopian dream!

Nonetheless, narratives like these are not just a national phenomenon but are also racially and gender determined. Narratives of unruly male youth have escalated and ideas of the black perpetrator and white victim are abound. However, narratives like these blur the reality. Blur the fact that women too can be, and are, also agents of crime in the country and that all races in our diverse country face crime, and of course we cannot ignore the links of crime to issues of poverty and education.

Crime is a prevalent part of our day-to-day lives and has, in turn, become a predominant discourse of our country, but we owe it to ourselves to consider the ways in which this narrative has been simplified and how a more nuanced, liberal, and even critical view of the narrative might open up new avenues of exploration on how to tackle the beast and finally relinquish the monster’s hunger.

Claudia Forster-Towne is a South African student completing an MSc in the Social Studies of Gender at Lund University. Currently she is doing an internship within the Conflict Cluster at the Nordic Africa Institute.

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One Response to A monster with a big diet: South African narratives of fear and crime (Guest post by Claudia Forster-Towne)

  1. Pingback: A monster with a big diet: South African narratives of fear and crime « Africa Interpreted

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