Fighting fire with fire burns us all

There is much cheering for the tough approach to crime that new police National Commissioner Bheki Cele brings with him, promising to “fight fire with fire”. On a recent visit to Latin America I witnessed the consequences of this approach in Rio de Janeiro.

We arrived in Rio on a Friday morning. Barely inside my host’s apartment, two blocks from the famously alluring Copacabana beach, I heard a rapid staccato of gun shots.
We looked out and hovering in the sky above was a police helicopter with cops exchanging machine-gun fire with someone on the ground.

It turned out that across the road was a hotel, and behind that, invisible to me, a favela, as the poor areas of Brazil are known. At the end of that day three young men were dead.

Favelas are vibrant but more or less self-governing neighbourhoods run by highly organised gangs, who coordinate the drug trade and who often have the police on their payroll.

Under political pressure, a shoot-to-kill approach adopted by the police some years ago resulted in the gangs seeking to be better armed than the police, setting off an arms race—each side trying to outgun the other. The shoot-out I witnessed that morning was a typical result.

Because the inhabitants of the favelas make up about a quarter of the city’s inhabitants, are poor and largely of African descent, middle-class and mostly white public opinion is happy to turn a blind eye to a police force inclined to dispense punishment without due regard for human rights, as long as those who live outside the favelas are “safe”.

We visited favelas with NGO workers, authorised to enter by the local gangs. Young men sat on street corners, lounging but alert sentries, their automatic weapons casually resting at their sides. Young boys worked kites in the skies off rooftops, an efficient communication system immune to electronic surveillance.

Not much happens in a favela without the permission of the gangs. They provide welfare support, regulate disputes and dispense justice. In other words, they do what a government might be expected to do.

The effects of conducting a “war on crime” has meant that the inhabitants of the favelas—the poor—often experience the state only in the form of a police force that criminalises them and their young men in particular.

I watched on television one night as police, who shot dead a drug dealer in a favela, were set upon with bricks and bottles by the community. Waging a war on crime has militarised the situation and alienated the poor from the Rio police and the state.

President Jacob Zuma has bravely acknowledged the challenge of crime. And he has appointed a police commissioner who thrives on displaying boldness in tackling problems.

These are welcome qualities. But, whereas leaders represent the people, they must also sometimes lead by being able to see beyond what many of us might feel or want.

Responding to the loudest voices that complain about crime in South Africa is going to mean thinking that we can reduce violent crime by better, tougher and more policing. This is what “the public wants to hear”.

This tough approach is precisely what happened in Rio. The lesson, learned by other Brazilian cities such as Sao Paulo and neighbouring Bogota in Colombia, is that reducing crime only through a police force does not lead to feeling safer.

Between the policemen and the gangsters exchanging machine-gun fire in Rio, I realised that it is the unarmed civilians who will be caught in the crossfire of a shoot-to-kill policy.

Yes, crime does need an effective criminal justice system; however, fighting crime can also be done with blunt weapons, such as effective schools, role models, social workers, psychologists, jobs and doctors.

Fighting crime in communities like ours has to contend with an important history: there is a wide divergence between the rules enshrined in the law and what is socially acceptable in the popular morality of many people who have grown up finding short cuts around the law.

This is something we share with many Latin American countries. In Bogota in Colombia, under mayor Antanas Mockus, the priority was to bring legal morality and social morality closer, with great success in changing behaviour through social sanction, social shaming and social rewards rather than simply by fear of the law.

This is not the knee-jerk reaction of responding to violence with violence. It takes longer, is less spectacular and requires more resources, creativity and human energy. Bolder political leaders don’t add fire to the fire. We know that we do have bold leaders. It’s time for them to lead.

Suren Pillay is a senior lecturer in political studies at the University of the Western Cape on secondment to the democracy and governance programme of the Human Sciences Research Council. He is part of a team conducting an international comparative study of the effects of violent crime on citizenship in Africa, Asia and Latin America

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