Good citizenship key to fighting crime

What the recently released crime statistics mostly tell us about is the state of citizenship in South Africa.

To what extent are we becoming a political community of shared rights and obligations that cross the race and class divides of apartheid?

What they tell us is that we are in a doubly descending spiral. They inspire a predictable set of so-far ineffectual actions and reactions from the ministry of police and the opposition parties.

Left unchecked, the perpetually rising levels of insecurity will undermine the prospects of a common citizenship in South Africa. Just because the ministry of police releases the statistics, we should not make the mistake of thinking that only the police have to account for the worrying story the statistics tell.

On its part the ministry of police has accepted this impossible role, adopting a defensive posture and leading to pressure to make the figures ‘look good”—or to make threats to shoot to kill.

Opposition politicians like the DA’s Dianne Kohler Barnard reinforce this tendency by harping on about the failure of the police, as if they are the sole instrument through which we will reduce crime levels.

The high level of crime indicates that there is a very low regard among many for the shared rights and obligations of living in a political community. This is not a problem solvable only through deterrence, which ‘visible policing” assumes.

Any first-year student of the humanities and social sciences should be able to tell you, after reading Max Weber, that the state cannot rely only on repression to rule. It has to combine the threat of
repression with the willingness of citizens to go along with the rules out of their own volition.

That is why repressive states and dictatorships fail in the long run: they rely too much on repression and fear, and less on voluntary cooperation. In other words, they rely too much on deterrence.

Even the apartheid government realised this truism. In the 1980s it switched from the outright brutality of the 1970s to the half-hearted ploy of ‘winning hearts and minds” in black townships by nominally upgrading services and creating representation—in other words, by combining the carrot with the stick.

To build a viable political community, where rights and obligations are respected and upheld, you need to foster the willingness to follow the law because it is seen to be in the interests of living a good life for all. If we rely only on the police, we will fail to reduce the crime levels.

We have never really lived in a united political community administered by a shared regime of legitimate law. A practice of common citizenship, of rewards and punishments, pertained only to white South Africa. For the rest, our lives were administered by punishment with few rewards, or through despotic customary laws.

To build a single political community from this fragmented history of citizenship is a challenge for every government portfolio—from economic affairs to housing, health, education and social welfare—and not only for the police.

We have to show that all our lives matter equally so that we develop a stake in making a post-apartheid South Africa a reality. It is a responsibility that we ordinary folk bear too.

How are those of us who were the beneficiaries of apartheid acting in our day-to-day lives to undo a history of privilege and entitlement in a society with the highest inequality in the world?

Does walling ourselves in and creating gated communities look good for a future of common citizenship, or are we recycling apartheid?

We have to be frank: none of us—black or white—has an exemplary history of being a citizen in South Africa. This is our common divided heritage.

Citizenship is ultimately a process of learning to be in community with others. Some of us have habits to unlearn and some of us have habits to learn.

What, then, is the best way to learn? Through the barrel of a gun or through example?

Suren Pillay teaches in the political science department at the University of the Western Cape and conducts research for the Democracy and Governance Programme of the Human Sciences Research Council

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