A three-year-old girl, Willemien Potgieter, was murdered with her mother and father on a farm near Lindley in the Free State on December 1 last year. For many people, such events are yet further confirmation that there is something out of the ordinary about perpetrators of violent crime in South Africa.
They are excessively cruel, many believe, or they engage in violence that goes far beyond what is necessary. Sometimes, it is believed, they do so for little or no reason.
Is it true that perpetrators of violent crime in South Africa are unusually violent? Should these ideas not rather be understood as ideological in nature? Might they not, for instance, be an expression of racialised beliefs that the nature of violence is linked to the attributes of specific population groups?
The prominent role played by black South Africans in violent crime has, for instance, recently been referred to in apparently racist comments by the author Annelie Botes and singer Steve Hofmeyr.
“I don’t know how the world thinks we should transform, integrate and let go of our prejudices and stay nice, tolerant Christians when blacks can shoot a three-year-old child in the head,” Hofmeyr is quoted saying.
It has not only been white Afrikaners who have commented on the prominent role of black South Africans in violent crime. In a recent article, Kopano Ratele, the co-director of one of the units at the Medical Research Council and a professor at Unisa, emphasises that young black men are principal victims of violence, as well as being its main perpetrators, and argues that there is a need for less “racial self-consciousness” in addressing this.
But the outraged responses to the remarks made by Botes and Hofmeyr suggest that this may not be easy. The preponderant role played by black and coloured South Africans in violent crime is, for some, easily converted into racial bigotry.
The blame game
For others, the knee-jerk response is a racial tit-for-tat blame game. In the words of one online respondent to Hofmeyr’s remarks, Catty88: “Hofmeyr’s great-grandparents, wherever they are — are seeing the results of the apartheid they started — If apartheid was never started we would have stayed in harmony just as God intended.”
Contestation about violent crime is a primary vehicle to air South Africa’s racial anxieties and prejudices. For those who believe South Africa is violent because violence is an attribute of racially defined groups, it is a small step to believing that crime is excessively violent for the same reason.
Even where beliefs about the excessively violent nature of crime are not ideological in nature, they nevertheless may be based in part on myth.
The fact is that in the vast majority of robberies people are not physically harmed. Most robbers do not engage in actual physical violence for no reason. Consistently, where people are killed or otherwise harmed in robberies, this is related to resistance or non-cooperation.
Reports of robbery highlight the fact that many robbers operate on a “professional” basis. The threat of violence is used to establish control over their victims but, once control has been established, they are not hurt.
Yet even if the general rule is that victims are not harmed in robberies and that most violent criminals use violence in a largely “rational” way, there are nevertheless incidents where violence seems disproportionate, excessive or even purposeless.
A man was stabbed to death for a R200 shirt. A man’s ears were cut off by a group of robbers, ostensibly to punish him for not having money or a cellphone for them to take. A shopkeeper was shot after “pleading with robbers to take everything — but spare his life”.
Such incidents are the exception rather than the rule but there seem to be enough of them to justify a concern that violent crime itself is unusually violent. If this is true, what might be the reason for it?
Violence as an expression
For some people the answer is that violence in South Africa is an expression of anger and hatred. Many of the responses to incidents where white farmers or members of their families have been killed, for instance, reflect the belief that these are motivated by racial hostility.
At a gathering outside the court where the alleged perpetrators of the Potgieter family killing were due to appear, Freedom Front Plus leader Pieter Mulder described the killings as racially motivated.
Johnny Steinberg’s award-winning book, Midlands, which focused on the 1999 killing of a white farmer, also endorsed the idea that a principal motivation for these killings was a sense of historical injustice and that they were implicitly a crude attempt at obtaining racial redress.
Yet support for the idea that racial animosity plays a role in violence across colour lines is scanty. In late-1990s research about vehicle hijackers, one said: “Well, I have no mercy for white people. My mother is suffering because of white people and I hate them.”
But accounts of robberies in which robbers explicitly articulate racial hostility are extremely rare. The balance of evidence seems to be that such motives are not a dominant factor even in cross-race violence. Where race does play a role, it may be that whites are perceived as “fair game”. Still, though historical reasons might be used as rationalisations, there is little evidence that overt racial animosity plays a central role.
Some robbers may use historical injustice to justify their criminal deeds, but for others these rationalisations must represent something of an inconvenience. With the consolidation of the black middle class in the post-apartheid period, the pool of potential victims for robbers has greatly expanded.
Excluding black people as potential victims would mean foregoing too many potential targets and opportunities. Members of the black middle class could often be victimised more easily because they are more likely to still live in, or at least visit, township areas that are the residential stamping ground of many hijackers and other robbers.
The principal victims
The basic fact is that black South Africans are the principal victims of violence. This appears to apply just as much to robbery as it does to sexual violence and to the fatal male-male arguments that, as Ratele emphasises, make young black men the biggest victims of homicide.
The observation by a British criminologist — that most violence “has been found to be both intra-class and intra-race” — applies equally to South Africa.
Yet, if apparently senseless or excessive violence is not necessarily related to hatred or anger, what might it then be related to? It may be that it is inflicted for little reason or indeed “for nothing”. But why would a person engage in violence “for nothing”?
This raises the issue of why violence is not even more widespread. Many of us experience similar emotions to those who act violently. Is it because we are concerned about social disapproval, fear punishment or potential opponents that violence in fact takes place so infrequently? These no doubt are relevant factors.
Yet, in addition, it seems that most emotionally well-developed people have internal inhibitions against violence. As the sociologist Randall Collins says, harming others is not emotionally easy for most people. Those who engage in violence for little reason might be assumed to be people lacking a sense of empathy. They lack “normal” inhibitions against violence.
Individuals who might be prone to this are psychopaths, sociopaths or people with attachment dissocial personality disorder, all of which are partly defined by emotionlessness or cruelty.
But people with empathy deficits may not be restricted to those afflicted by such disorders. With some offenders, the lack of empathy might reflect cognitive distortions that enable them to ignore the distress of their victims, though they retain the capacity for empathy in other interactions.
Alcohol abuse or drugs should also be considered here.
Whether or not people develop a capacity for empathy partly depends on the environment in which they grow up. Growing up with violence, whether at the family, peer-group or community level, may also reduce sensitivity to the harm inflicted by violence.
A further factor may be the high levels of inequality in South Africa, which create a high degree of “relational distance” between people, as a result of which many might not be inclined to see themselves as part of a common citizenry. Such relational distance might be more significant in explaining cross-class or cross-race violence as opposed to intra-class and intra-race violence.
With regard to the latter, though, inequality could also be involved, feeding into the idea that the lives of only the select few are of value while the lives of others are of little consequence.
There are many examples of kindness, but there are also multiple ways in which more affluent South Africans unconsciously communicate an uncaring attitude to those who are poorer.
The dynamics of situations where people injure or kill others for items of property, whether big or small, are reflected in situations where people use their own interests as a justification for treating others with indifference.
Some people allow their employees to be exposed to dangerous or unhealthy situations but are happy to reap the material benefits of this relationship. Such callousness, which may also reflect a “relational distance”, could feed into attitudes that contribute to violence.
An absence of empathy could also be relevant to understanding the apparent indifference of those perpetrators who cruelly torture victims during a crime to force them to reveal where valuables or firearms are hidden.
It seems reasonable to note that torture was institutionalised under apartheid and, although torture is no longer practised on the same scale today, there continue to be reports of torture by police. This could have something to do with the use of torture during robberies and other crimes.
It is clear that South Africa suffers from high levels of violence. Whether it also suffers disproportionately from apparently gratuitous violence or deliberate cruelty is less clear, though the prevalence of such beliefs suggests there is some substance to this. If true, one possibility is that anger and hostility, sometimes rationalised on historical grounds, are widespread.
Another possibility is that excessive violence reflects widespread empathy deficits. These might reflect the pathologies of violent criminals or the effect of substance abuse, but there are other ways in which our society may foster the disposition towards indifference and cruelty.
One may be the way we respond to violent crime — consistently, it is when middle-class and, particularly, white South Africans are victimised, that violent crime is seen as a matter of concern, while the impact of violence on poorer people is disregarded.
Is it possible that the acts of violence that so horrify us are merely mirroring back to us our own inability to see and feel across the chasms that divide South Africa? — David Bruce is a senior research specialist at the Centre for the Study of Violence and Reconciliation