/ 29 July 2020

Vigorous policing of petty crime during the pandemic suggests a Pyrrhic defeat

Safrica Health Virus Demonstration
Limits: A police officer confronts a man pleading for the release of a protester detained for breaching lockdown regulations during a demonstration in Snake Park, Soweto, against electricity cuts. (Marco Longari/AFP)

Our law, in all its majestic equality, forbids the rich as well as the poor, to beg in the streets, steal bread and sleep under bridges.

Anatole France, 19th century French novelist

Recently, on a bright and beautiful Sunday morning, a car guard stepped out of a shop having purchased three loose, illicit entjies (cigarettes). He paid slightly more than five bucks for each and saw this purchase as just reward for having worked a week of long hours with little pay. As he lit one up to enjoy before heading to the eatery where he works, five cops jumped on him, demanding to see his receipt. 

The entjies were confiscated and he was hauled off to the charge office where he was detained in a dark, cold cell until the following morning when a forced undertaking to turn “state witness” against the trusted shop owner who had sold him the loose, was elicited from him.

Policing petty crime with such vigour after the lockdown was moved to a more bearable level  3 along with a spike in more serious crime, brings to mind a neo-Marxist reading of crime in dysfunctional societies, as is the case in South Africa. This spike in serious crime with apparent impunity includes muggings, armed robbery and large-scale looting of the public purse, such as funds to the tune of R2.2-billion allocated for Covid-19 relief. 

Level 3 lockdown regulations, however, are riddled with inconsistencies such as restaurants doing sit-downs but not being permitted to sell alcohol, yet taxis are allowed to load to full capacity and funerals and church services have become sites for super-spreading of infections. This state of affairs can be explained by a construct known as a Pyrrhic defeat.

Jeffery Reiman, a conflict criminologist based in the United States, develops his “Pyrrhic defeat theory” in his provocatively entitled book The Rich Get Richer and the Poor Get Prison: Ideology, Class, and Criminal Justice. This is a book well  worth reading for a better understanding of the dystopian society in which we live. Originally published in 1979, Reiman brought out the eleventh edition of this text in 2016: testimony to the endurance of his theory in the field of criminal justice. 

Whereas a Pyrrhic victory refers to a victory that is achieved at such costs that it amounts to a victory only in name, a Pyrrhic defeat of the same magnitude would mean that it’s a defeat in name only and one that actually amounts to a victory. Reiman explains the somewhat unconventional name in the following terms: 

“The Pyrrhic defeat theory argues that the failure of the criminal justice system yields such benefits to those in positions of power that it amounts to success. In what follows, I will try to explain the failure of the criminal justice system to reduce crime by showing the benefits that accrue to the powerful of America from this failure.”

The nub of Reiman’s thesis is that the criminal justice system strives above all to attain ends other than the reduction of crime in any serious and credible sense — objectives that are rarely considered by a (generally ignorant) voting public, who so assiduously call for harsher and longer terms of imprisonment. 

As Reiman perceptively points out, one of the ideological aims of the criminal justice system in the US (but also in all dysfunctional societies, including South Africa) is the indirect legitimisation of the present inequitable and unjustifiable economic system.

As economist Thomas Piketty pointed out in his Nelson Mandela Memorial Lecture at the University of Johannesburg’s Soweto-campus in 2015, South Africa is at the top of its class when it comes to ownership and income inequality. 

If the objective of criminal justice in dysfunctional societies, such as South Africa, is not the reduction of crime in any serious sense, but demonising the poor so as to justify policing them tirelessly, the question then arises as to what the true purpose of criminal justice is in such societies. 

The true purpose, Reiman argues, is to deflect attention from the “Big Game” — the big-time crime perpetrated by the powerful and the rich. This is the reason why prison abolitionist activists (such as Angela Davis and Michelle Alexander) consider poverty a “source” rather than a “cause” of crime. Tagging behaviour as crime is very much in the eye of those with the power to label. 

Consider, for example, Colin Leys, professor emeritus of political studies at Queen’s University, Canada, who argues that in the age of “total capitalism” (which was what rent-seeking efforts  have morphed into since the late 1970s) national governments have illegally abdicated the mandates obtained from their electorates to fuse their agendas completely with that of business.  

A good example that comes to mind, is the alleged involvement of Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma, minister of co-operative governance and traditional affairs (Cogta), with the illicit tobacco industry to perpetuate their business interests at the cost of jobs in the legitimate, tax-paying tobacco industry. 

This, while the fiscus haemorrhages and smokers suffer financial challenges (black market prices are staggering), psychological trauma (smoking is desperately addictive) and are subject to possible health risks (illicit tobacco products are obviously unregulated). 

Numerous studies, both locally and internationally, have pointed out the flaws in government’s thinking. A study in China actually suggests that although smoking has adverse long-term effects, it can add to current immunity against the coronavirus. The fact that the vested interests perpetuated are illicit business rather than overt tax-paying business interests, is neither here nor there. This situation makes perfect sense against the background of Reiman’s Pyrrhic defeat theory and Leys’ notion that the government serves only as the pageboy of Big Business.

Even if Dlamini-Zuma is entirely innocent of the charges of corruption levelled at her, the perception that she is tainted by the illicit tobacco trade — paying back favours for Adriano Mazzotti’s bankrolling her failed presidential campaign — made it an ill-conceived decision to include her in the presumptuously named National Coronavirus Command Council (NCCC). 

Despite President Cyril Ramaphosa’s insisting to an increasingly incredulous public that decisions implemented during the various stages of lockdown are evidence-based, this is not the message that health experts employed by the NCCC are independently communicating to the public. 

Professor Glenda Gray, initially persecuted by national health for speaking out, and Dr Charles Parry, both members of the South African Medical Research Council (SAMRC) advising the NCCC on the cigarette and alcohol bans, have expressed concern at the regulations framed by the NCCC. They have pointed out that the command council has deviated from their advice, that the regulations are not evidence-based and that they steer towards a path of irrationality. 

It is troubling, for example, that Zweli Mkhize, our national minister of health, has refused to release the reports produced by SAMRC.  Framing contradictory regulations, such as banning smoking while taxis can load to full capacity (provided they keep their windows open and don’t cross provincial borders), has done Ramaphosa’s image as a legitimate and reasonable president enormous, perhaps even irreparable, damage. 

Consider these features against the disturbing fact that despite the NCCC’S fancy footwork and South Africa’s lockdown having been one of the hardest in the world, causing untold suffering, South Africa is one of the five countries with the worst-known coronavirus outbreaks right now. According to The New York Times, the other four are Oman, Bahrain, Panama, and the US. Dare we ask whether all of our sacrifices were in vain, or even worse, have backfired? 

Similarly, the use of stun grenades and water cannons by the riot police against peaceful protesters in Cape Town attempting to raise awareness of the plight of job losses in the hospitality industry, is yet another demonstration of a government seriously out of touch with the realities on the ground.  As Marx observed in a letter written in 1843 to his friend Rüge: “Reason always exists, but not always in rational form.” Clearly. If Ramaphosa is calling the shots rather than the Zuma faction, he is not showing his hand. 

It begets little argument that when lockdown rules cannot be rationally justified and its motivation of being evidence-based is clearly not tenable, the government will lose credibility and smokers and drinkers will be more inclined to disregard the rules. 

If the government cannot justify bans to be transparently evidence-based and rational, it will not convince a fed-up, increasingly cynical public amid a tanking economy, that the objective is to flatten the curve and save lives. So baby, tell me one more beautiful lie. 

Demonising the poor and policing their petty crimes, such as that of our hapless car guard wanting a harmless puff on an entjie on a balmy Sunday morning,  might deflect attention for the moment, but in the long run our Ramasaviour and his three musketeers in the NCCC (Dlamini-Zuma, Mkhize and the hawkish Bheki Cele) cannot survive politically.


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Dr Casper Lӧtter is a conflict criminologist affiliated to North West University’s school of philosophy (Potchefstroom) as researcher extraordinaire