Spectre of violent crime looms large

This week started out on a rather gloomy note when South Africans woke to the news that Bafana Bafana captain Senzo Meyiwa was shot dead in Vosloorus. Whatever the circumstances surrounding the shooting, Meyiwa is no more and again we have to ask how much more senseless violent crime will South Africans witness before we say, 'enough!'.

We lost boxing champion Corrie Sanders to gun crime and legendary artist Lucky Dube suffered the same fate. Meyiwa was in the prime of his life yet spewed out by a society unable to control the elements within it that take life so easily and so cheaply.

Any observations about levels of violent crime often results in unproductive debates regarding the return of the death penalty or some form of racism regarding whether the greatest victims of crime are whites or blacks. And so it turns into a whinge-fest, which is also often not constructive.

But statistics aside, we know that our crime rate is far too high for people to feel safe even in their homes. We also know that South Africans in poorer areas bear the brunt of the burden of crime simply because of under-resourced and corrupt police. The recent Khayelitsha Commission of Inquiry in Cape Town proved that sufficiently. Living in a middle-class suburb will probably give you a better chance of protecting yourself and accessing a police station or help should you be a victim of crime. But, it is abundantly clear that the spectre of violent crime looms large wherever you find yourself in South Africa.

In the past weeks, we have seen a spate of mall robberies and a security guard lost his life brutally in the Waterstone mall in Somerset West. There will be no special task team investigating his death as we have seen with the police response to Meyiwa's shooting. The security guard will be yet another statistic, left unresolved perhaps. The brazen way in which these crimes are committed seems to have surprised many and the solutions are not easily found.

Many tomes have been written about why we experience such high levels of violent crime. Violence has been a part of the language of this country almost since day one. Add to this the post-apartheid struggle to deal with joblessness and rising levels of inequality with an almost 40% unemployment rate and our socio-economic environment becomes a toxic mix of hopelessness and random violence.

It was Mamphela Ramphele who spoke about our 'social pain' and our need to recognise the deep collective anger which drives (mostly) young men, marginalised and excluded from the mainstream, to turn to crime. Valid as that is, there are also short-term solutions such as proper policing methods, more crime intelligence and better training for police as well as rooting out corruption, not only in the police force but across the public service which need to be applied with greater rigour.

Yet, we have seen the police crime intelligence being captured by political interests in the Richard Mdluli matter, with intelligence being used to fight narrow party political battles instead of being used to garner information about true criminal activity. In addition, the National Commissioner of Police, Riah Phiyega, remains in her job despite her disastrous tenure, which included Marikana and her frankly dismal evidence before the Farlam Commission. Years before, we saw deputy safety and security minister Susan Shabangu giving the 'shoot to kill' command and so why does it surprise us that the police and citizenry have become trigger-happy?

The police were quick to act after Meyiwa's death, offering rewards and holding press conferences. That is all well and good but the environment in which the crime happened is one of increasing impunity. The ANC's own Jackson Mthembu is lucky to be alive after he was shot in a mall in eMalahleni recently. We have become so inured to the loss of life and yet another robbery or shoot-out that it's hard to think of our society quickly restoring itself after so much collective trauma, both past and present.

We will be outraged by Meyiwa's violent passing and no doubt the politicians will make all the right noises in the next weeks, but the facts do not change - that this is increasingly a society in which acts of impunity go unpunished because of shoddy police work, corruption and the law simply having no 'bite'.

Perhaps that is why there was such an outcry when Oscar Pistorius was given a five-year sentence for culpable homicide? We were then told that in fact in the South African system, Pistorius will be under some form of correctional supervision or house arrest after a mere 10 months. Surely, there is something amiss here in a country with such high levels of domestic violence and gun crime? Of course Pistorius was not found guilty of murder and so the sentence in the judge's view was appropriate and what the law allowed for culpable homicide. Yet, there seems to be no doubt that the majority of South Africans will be backing state prosecutor, Gerrie Nel, as he appeals the sentence and verdict, simply because collectively we are angry and messages need to be sent to those who wield guns without responsibility and who believe that their actions may hold little punishment. Perhaps though, further law reform is necessary regarding minimum sentences and questions of parole?

South Africans tend to move on very quickly from tragedy, outrage or farce. It seems to be a coping mechanism in a place that can sap energy in equal measure, as it is able to bewitch and enchant. But, the politicians who preside over this state of disorder should also be held to account more vociferously so that corruption and a breakdown of the rule of law can be dealt with effectively. We owe future generations a land less broken and violent

Judith February is a senior associate at the Institute for Security Studies (ISS).