Grammar of violence

Another fatal robbery—this time the murder of a Johannesburg northern suburbs mother who was shot dead when her hi-fi and television were stolen—has raised questions about the violence of crime in South Africa.

Tracy-Leigh Frankish was found in her bedroom on Sunday, apparently killed execution-style with a bullet to the head. Robbers, who had been scared off by her screams five days earlier, had returned to complete the job.

In South Africa “violence is the point of the crime”, Time Magazine Africa bureau chief Alex Perry said earlier this year. “In a society where violence, until recently, was part of the grammar of politics, it can still be rationalised as avenging inequality.”

“Inequality reinforces feelings of inadequacy, which may contribute to feelings of hopelessness and anger,” said David Bruce, senior researcher at the Centre for the Study of Violence and Reconciliation. The “psychological legacy of apartheid” is also a factor, he said.

Violence is ingrained in South Africans from childhood, said Barbara Holtmann, senior manager of the CSIR’s Crime Prevention Centre. “We are seeing the result of children growing up with the normalisation of violence, neglect and abuse, where physical contact is not about love and nurture but is instead about conflict and habitual violence.” One result is evident in the fact that five million children were included in the state’s child protection system last year, said Holtmann.

Children grow up lacking the capacity for empathy and “the healthy inhibitions against extreme violence appear to be absent”, said Craig Higson-Smith, a researcher with the South African Institute for Traumatic Stress.

Easily available firearms and high levels of alcohol, and what Bruce describes as an environment of prominent consumption, where material items are “markers of worth or status”, add fuel to this violent fire.

The criminal justice system alone cannot address the problem. “This is something that requires a whole society response,” says Holtmann. “We tend to look to the police for solutions to crime and violence, yet departments such as social development, education, health and transport have equally important roles to play.”

The government needs to re-assess its investing priorities. “We have more than 190 000 police but less than 12 000 social workers,” says Holtmann. Also needed are “real prospects for advancement for young people and rehabilitating first-time offenders of relatively minor crimes before they commit more serious crimes”, says Higson-Smith.

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