A wasteland of concrete bunkers and the fear of crime

Violent crime is a visceral daily reality in South Africa. However, the politics of fear may be preventing more substantive and far-reaching societal responses to the scourge.

The release of the latest annual crime statistics by the South African Police Service has painted a grim picture of violent crime in South Africa. Along with an increase in murders, which average 58 a day, the statistics show a disturbingly high number of sexual assaults, violent street thefts and home invasions. Behind all these figures are individual human stories of trauma, shock and searing physical and psychological wounds. Apart from making life less safe, crime makes South African society more anxious, precarious and miserable. 

The distribution of violent crime reflects South Africa’s deep class fractures and residing spatial apartheid. While impoverished areas see high rates of street robbery and assault, shopping areas and middle-class suburbs are targeted by armed criminal syndicates doing car theft and property break-ins.

Despite the typological distribution of crime, social violence is pervasive throughout South Africa. For example, I live in a middle-class suburb in Johannesburg and yet still regularly fear that harm and death are lurking around every corner. In the past year I’ve had stray bullets flying past my window during a shoot-out between robbers and private security guards. The new year was tragically ushered in with a drive-by shooting just down the road. As South Africa’s Covid-19 lockdown has eased, Johannesburg has returned to its nightly ambient soundtrack of screeching tires, distant gunfire and the insectile humming of police helicopters. 

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The psychological fear of crime is reinforced and validated by the physical landscape: high walls, electrified fences, CCTV cameras, floodlights, acres of barbed wire and countless armed response companies. This “neo-military architectural syntax” is intended to protect personal safety and property, but it also reinforces the sense that daily life is a low-level war in which spectacular violence can erupt at any time.

This outer landscape structures a dark mental topography, where life is diminished and quartered into a series of fearful questions. Can I take my phone out in public or will it get snatched? Is that person walking towards me carrying a knife? Is that sound outside at night just rustling leaves or an armed intruder? 

Exploiting anxieties about crime

But while visceral fears around crime may be rooted in material reality, these anxieties can be easily adopted for regressive political ends. The fear of crime is often mobilised to advance a popular authoritarianism, which is used in the media and civil discourse to legitimise, for example, police killings. 

Crime is also deployed to rationalise racism and xenophobia, while white supremacists try to enflame paranoia around “farm murders” – a euphemism for the far-right white genocide conspiracy theory. Xenophobic violence against African and Asian migrants is fuelled by moral panic about drugs and alleged immigrant criminality. State and private security violence against the impoverished, such as often illegal evictions and political repression, are also often framed as part of the “war on crime”.

While rooted in material reality, the fear of crime in post-apartheid South Africa has inspired both a reactionary political culture and militarised living environments. Although these punitive responses show deep continuities with the colonial and apartheid past, they have also occurred in tandem with global shifts towards increasingly securitised, anxious societies.

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Colonial warfare, white supremacist power structures, brutal social inequalities and political repression made South Africa a violent country. During apartheid, the state brutally enforced a false sense of security for the white minority. While white spaces were rigorously governed and patrolled, violence and murder were rampant in impoverished black areas, where the police allowed crime to flourish. Despite their considerable affluence and personal safety, however, many white South Africans were fully indoctrinated with apocalyptic fears of reprisal and revolts from black people. These fears seethed behind suburban walls and, after the end of apartheid, would be displaced by fears about crime.

Panic in the streets of Joburg

This segregated world is brilliantly captured in 1988’s Mapantsula, a film about a small-time hoodlum named Panic that is set in the last days of apartheid. The movie, which was banned on its initial release, contrasts the eerie stillness of the Johannesburg suburbs with the frenetic dangers of life in the township. Notably, Panic’s experiences with the police shows how, in South Africa, social violence has always occurred in tandem with  state violence. 

Indeed, the political violence of the early 1990s, itself aided by the apartheid state, helped lay the foundations for criminal violence after the 1994 elections. The proliferation of weapons – and people trained to use them – created new opportunities for gangs and criminal syndicates. For example, the formerly whites-only suburbs became targets for car thieves looking for luxury vehicles to steal and sell.

Violent street crime became both a media and a political fixation from the mid-1990s. Crime was viewed as an existential threat to South Africa’s nascent democracy and economic development, especially as it was increasingly seen to target the middle classes.  

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Crime prevention itself became a major part of the economy, with the growth of a vast private security and guarding industry, and the mushrooming of gated estates and security complexes. Sudden and shocking crimes, such as armed carjackings, inspired a particular dread, with one entrepreneur even marketing cars with flame-throwers as a dramatic countermeasure. 

Carjacking also reflected profound socio-spatial inequalities. This was captured in the 2005 film Tsotsi, which frames hijacking as the point where affluence and property meet the violent desperation caused by racialised impoverishment. Underscoring exactly how South Africa remains a country of two worlds, the film’s director of photography was robbed in the weeks before it won the Academy Award for Best Foreign Film. Reports at the time noted one of the gunmen saying, “That is why I am so sorry to do this to you. I saw Tsotsi; it’s a good film.” 

Just one among many

A deep history of racial suspicion combined with new fears and insecurity about violent crime saw South African gain both a domestic and international reputation as one of the world’s most crime-ridden countries. Prominent books like Rian Malan’s My Traitor’s Heart (1991) and Kevin Bloom’s Ways of Staying (2009) often presented violent crime in quasi-mystical terms, as a unique evil which had taken root in the South African psyche.

However, South Africa was far from being an international outlier. The legacy of Cold War conflicts, economic globalisation and growing socio-economic inequality meant that many countries saw a rise in both organised and street crime in the 1990s and 2000s. 

As Misha Glenny writes in McMafia, an extensive survey of contemporary international organised crime, South Africa’s developed market economy and weak policing capacity made it a desirable target for transnational crime syndicates. For example, hijacking itself is linked to a cross-border criminal industry. “Mercedes, BMWs, Lexus and any make of 4×4” are stolen in South Africa and, with the help of crooked officials, smuggled and resold across sub-Saharan Africa and beyond.

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This highlights how crime in South Africa is rooted in material realities, rather than mysterious, inexplicable pathologies. Economic poverty, a climate of social violence and chronic unemployment mean that there are ample people prepared to take up a gun and commit robbery and murder. When this is connected to market forces, and a compromised and corrupt political bureaucracy, violent crime flourishes.

As British geographer Stephen Graham argues, the spiralling fear of crime in cities like Johannesburg reflects an international move towards securitised spaces. From Los Angeles to São Paulo, the perceived volatility of urban life leads to a “withdrawal into increasingly defended homes, gated enclaves and interioritised lives”. In her study of urban fear in Brazil, Theresa Caldeira demonstrates how this withdrawal intensifies hyper-inequality and creates a paranoia around democracy itself by reinforcing the belief that cities are dangerous because of racial and class “others”.

Endless cycle of escalation 

The post-apartheid state’s failure to protect the citizenry from violent and opportunistic crime has meant that South Africans have become used to living in virtual prisons. Since the 1990s, crime control has come to mean spatial militarisation and punitive private policing. This has created an endless cycle of escalation – as inequality and unemployment grow, crime and social dysfunction rise, leading to more police killings, spatial paranoia and agoraphobia about public spaces. 

Fear of crime has become an overpowering element of South African political culture. But as political philosopher Corey Robin argues in his book Fear: The History of a  Political Idea, anxiety and terror can obscure the political and economic dimensions of our social ills. In the case of South Africa, the fear of crime may be occluding the stark truth that both the state and capital have squandered many of the hopes of democracy, and have enriched themselves at the expense of building an inclusive and stable society that ensures basic safety for all.

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As both the national and global economic crisis worsen in the 2020s, life will become more dangerous and unsafe for both the already impoverished and the increasingly precarious middle classes. Without a progressive alternative to the question of violent crime and public safety, right-wing authoritarian solutions will gain greater support. 

This may entail both acknowledging the power of the fear of the crime, but also exploring the material and social roots of it, rather than fetishising it as an intractable problem that can never be improved. True, substantive safety means addressing the greatest causes of social insecurity such as mass unemployment, the degradation of infrastructure and public spaces, and authoritarian, xenophobic and misogynist ideologies that legitimise social violence and a culture of impunity among financial and political elites. 

The conservatism around the fear of crime means that such an argument may be dismissed as hopelessly utopian or naïvely altruistic. But is living in a maze of militarised streets and a wasteland of concrete bunkers truly the best we can hope for? In many ways, the fear of crime has impeded the South African cultural imagination, reinforcing the inherited authoritarianism of the past while entrenching the hyper-inequality of the capitalist present. 

Rather than simply handing more repressive power to the police and private forces, would public safety not be better served by creating robust institutions and spaces that would allow us to live with less fear and more hope? This is not even a question of high-minded altruism so much as self-interest: a society that is more democratic, equitable and just will be safer for all. 

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