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The Privatization of Crime in Southern Africa

By Jan Knippers Black


Approaching the Johannesburg airport, the South African Airways pilot announces, "You are now completing the safest part of your journey. Drive carefully and lock your car doors He might have been particularly mindful of the recent rash of vehicle hijackings, but it appeared to be generally accepted by locals and visitors alike that Johannesburg is now the crime capital of the world.

The adoption of a new democratic and color-blind South African constitution in spring of 1996, just two years after the historic elections that brought Nelson Mandela from prison to the presidency and broke the stranglehold of apartheid, has passed almost unnoticed in the international media. The withdrawal of de Klerk's National Party from the cabinet in June might be seen as marking the final parenthesis around the transition period. At least in terms of global politics and perceptions, South Africa -- and by extension its front-line neighbors who have undergone their own democratization or redemocractization processes -- leaves to now rewritable history the heroic liberation struggle and becomes just another country with seemingly insuperable problems. Perhaps the most intractable of those problems, and surely the one most threatening to-the newly woven social fabric, will be that of free-lance violence street crime.


Anarchy at Street-Level

Dormitories at Johannesburg's prestigious University of Witswatersrand have the ambiance of a high-security prison; getting out is almost as hard as getting in. Parking lot attendants at exits ask to see the car restarted with keys to ensure that it has not been hot-wired. Security guards are spread strategically around the campus. Even so, four participants in the conference we were attending--men walking together in broad daylight -- were assaulted and robbed.

Snuggled against the soaring cliffs of Table Mountain, Capetown, seat of the South African parliament, is one of the world’s most enchanting port cities and an increasingly popular tourist destination. It does not yet share Johannesburg's reputation for crime infestation; but apart from the Victoria and Albert Waterfront, where security guards are omnipresent, the streets are deserted in the evenings. Residents claim that anyone on downtown streets after dark is probably either a tourist or a mugger.

The Cape had always had a reputation for being more tolerant and socially fluid that other regions of South Africa. But Blacks and Coloreds had been moved out of prime real estate to preserve it for Whites. Coloreds comprise more than half of the population of Capetown, but Blacks are moving in now from townships and homelands, looking for work. Squatter communities on the-periphery of the city, and particularly around the airport, have a population already of some 750,000. Such a build-up is

frightening to whites and coloreds, for whom crime is now a major concern. A university professor in the Cape told me that six of his friends had been murdered just in the last few years. Throughout Southern Africa cities are walled and gated one establishment at a time. Streets and sidewalks are regarded as a kind of free-fire zone. In the Namibian capital, Windhoek, the doors to our hotel were operated from behind the reception desk. It was impossible to open them at any hour from the outside --good protection, one assumes, for the staff, though not necessarily for the guests.

In Mozambique's capital, Maputo, we were warned not to go for a stroll, even in the daytime, and to be very careful what kind of taxi we engaged. Friends in the diplomatic community in Zambia were told not to go to downtown Lusaka at night, even in a car. The residence they had taken over from other European diplomats came with full-time maid and gardener and a 24-hour security guard. Like most other European, or expatriates, homes, it was walled and gated, and windows and doors were double-barred. There was an electronic burglar-alarm system for the entire property and the pervasive "panic button" that is supposed to summon the police instantaneously. Inside the house, the hall leading to the bedrooms had an additional padlocked and alarm-wired rape gate." Whether such systems are seen as practical precautions or as paranoia, the fear they reflect is very real and has real political and socioeconomic repercussions.

In Maun, Botswana, a rural town of rounded, thatched huts and mostly unpaved roads, from which safaris set off for the Okavango Delta, I thought we had finally escaped the reach of crime and its attendant fears. I commented to a European ex-Pat that it must be nice to be in a small town and not have to worry about crime. She said, "You asked the wrong person. Two days ago burglars broke into my home and took everything that wasn't nailed down."

Of course, diplomats, ex-pats, and tourists are by no means the most likely victims of free-lance crime. Those most devastated in Southern Africa as elsewhere are the local underclasses, those who had been victimized already by prevailing economic and political systems and generally lack the wherewithal to protect themselves.

Edward, our taxi driver in Victoria Falls, was a Shona from the southern part of Zimbabwe. His wife and three children still lived there, 700 kilometers away. He said it was really tough to livid like this, as he was able to see his family only a few times a year; but it was better than what they had tried before -- living together in Harare. The cost of everything -- housing, transportation, water, electricity -- was very high; but the worst problem was crime, and taxi drivers were particularly vulnerable. There was always a danger, he said, when he picked up a fare that he might be robbed at gunpoint.

In Namibia we were told that since the newly independent government lacks both the resources and the unscrupulousness of its colonial predecessor,. maintaining public order has been an acute problem. In some outlying areas, villagers have taken matters into their own hands, resorting to vigilante operations.

In Namibia, as in South Africa itself, it has been very hard for some of the freedom fighters, especially those who did not go into exile but stayed to face great risks, and in many cases great loss, to accept the idea of reconciliation -- not only without revenge, but without any pretense of justice against the worst rights abusers. In a gentle voice, with wisdom and compassion welling from deep blue eyes, Buddy Wentworth says, "I really came to Namibia to kill White people." A Cape Colored, he had been active in the Communist Party and the ANC. When he was forced out of South Africa in 1969, he went to Namibia to fight for SWAPO. His first act as Deputy Minister of Education in the new Namibia was to ban corporal punishment in the schools. Things got out of hand during the first year or two of the new regime, as the only discipline the children had known had been removed, but then they settled down again. The same cannot yet be said of the lack of discipline on the streets, But Buddy and his colleagues say that violence is not the solution; violence is the problem.


The Legacy of Official Violence

Violence is by no means new to South Africa or its neighbors. The toxic residue of a half century of official violence -- of violence instigated by White rulers -- continues to poison relations and, in some areas, generate open conflict among poor Blacks. Throughout the 1980s, RENAMO guerrillas spread terror among Mozambique peasants in an effort, underwritten by the South African government, to bring down FRELIMO, the movement that led Mozambique to independence in 1975. RENAMO fighters are now being integrated into the Mozambique security forces, but the UN calculates that there remain some two million landmines, lying in wait like old enemies along dusty country roads.

In South Africa itself, well into the period of transition to majority rule, unreconstructed Security forces continued to subsidize the sabotage operations of Inkatha movement leader Mangosuthu Buthelezi in order to portray South Africa's struggle as essentially -Black-on-Black. The deadly struggle still underway in KwaZulu-Natal province, between. ANC and Inkatha Zulus, has spilled over to metal-working areas of the East Rand, or the East ridge, above Johannesburg. There migrant workers, ANC and Inkatha., from KwaZulu-Natal are housed like sardines in separate hostels in Black townships like Tokoza, Vosloorus, and Katlehong; And their battles, fought with guns, knives, machetes, and explosives, have engulfed the surrounding communities.

Entire communities -- or remains of communities--are under the control, so to speak, of gangs representing one or the other of the warring parties, and even for "civilians" trying desperately not to be involved, being caught on the wrong side of a demarcation line can cost a life. More than 16,000 people- have been killed in the East Rand just since the beginning of the nineties. Even now, courageous Peace Committee mediators, absorbed since 1994 by Mandela's all-encompassing Reconstruction and Development Program, do not pretend that peace has been achieved -- only that there is a tense and fragile kind of stability in the conflict zone.

Official violence and its legacies are being addressed, albeit delicately. by the new government's Truth and Reconciliation Commission. Delicately because many perpetrators of official violence have been grandfathered into their military and security force positions and might still strike back somehow. Delicately also because the anti-government violence of which some prominent ANC members stand accused is to be addressed by the same commission. And delicately because there is a certain inherent instability in a reconciliation between the privileged and the wretched, the armed and the unarmed, the abusers and the victims.

Perhaps the weightiest "truth" is that, as in the cases of some supposedly "redemocratized" Latin American governments, the beasts of the ancien regime have yet to be defanged. Almost everybody is betting on the survival of the new social truce, but few are anxious to up the ante.

Like many other institutions that had served the apartheid regime so well, violence is now being privatized. The fact that the new Privatized kind of violence is more pervasive and less predictable does not make it more reprehensible than the-more familiar official kind, but it does make it an awful threat to the young and vulnerable democracy. Such street-level anarchy is as certain as tyranny to dissolve community, to sever links among races and classes and generations, and to recreate apartheid, but an apartheid of the sort more common elsewhere in the world the kind based on income inequality.