Justice Gained? Crime and Crime Control in South Africa’s Transition

Edited by Bill Dixon and Elrena van der Spuy
2004, Cape Town, University of Cape Town Press.


Two major themes run through this volume and bind together a set of otherwise very diverse papers. The first is “the transition,” or how South Africa has seen the end of an era and the beginning of a new one with the official end of apartheid and the 1994 general elections. Evaluations of the depth, consequence, if not the reality of this transition vary according to the authors but the before/transition/after triptych is the main conceptual leitmotif of the book. For instance, Elrena van der Spuy takes us on a roller coaster ride through successive phases in policing research in South Africa. Few better demonstrations that social science research is enslaved to its immediate political environment can be given: the static, artificial neutrality of apartheid positivism dominates the era when the nationalist government was strong; the critical voices appear when it starts to show weakness; the transitional reformists rise with the constitutional talks and the disillusioned stock takers appear with the “post-transitional” years. In short, research on policing has gone through far more transformations than its object.

The second theme is what one might call the South African crime psychosis, the idea that rampant crime and corruption have, perhaps definitively, escaped the control of a weak government. It permeates dominant discourses about the nation as well as most of the works included here. Not that the level of violence in South Africa isn’t disturbingly high. Rob Turrell describes how SA’s already stratospheric murder statistics are probably severely underestimating the problem, in large part because of dubious police practices in statistics reporting. Yet in the absence of state intervention, a large portion of these murders in fact fall in the category of “self help” justice, where individuals use violence to solve interpersonal conflicts in the absence of alternatives. This is a cycle of violence that is to a large extent self-sustaining. Turrell uses a few indicators of inequality in SA — land distribution, the application of the death penalty, the distortion of masculine identities by apartheid, to suggest that murderous violence is the result of a history of institutionalized injustice and repression, a case that should be easy to make. But his argument quickly becomes entangled in legalistic and constitutional detail entirely removed from the question at hand. What is missing, among other things, is a discussion of the possibility that a state could be overly repressive and insufficiently in control at the same time. Seductive as it is, for a criminologist the argument of blaming everything on apartheid needs a demonstration.

Self-help justice, combined with the accelerated rates at which South Africans are purchasing and using firearms, also makes solving policy questions related to the regulation of gun ownership all the more urgent. Unfortunately, as Antony Altbeker shows, research worldwide has precious little to tell us on the subject and remains largely inconclusive to date. While some results seem to show that increased gun ownership deters criminals, others point to an increase in the brutality of the crimes.

In his chapter Graeme Simpson criticizes the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s simplistic differentiation of “true” crime and “politically motivated” crime — especially in the way it is centred around the “conflicts of the past” and a clear dichotomy between the apartheid context and the post-1994 democratic context. One conventional reproach made to the TRC is that pardoning some of the worse criminals in South African history on the sole condition that they “tell the truth” about their deeds has fostered a “culture of impunity” instead of the culture of forgiveness it was hoping for, one where dealing with crime and criminals has become secondary to fulfilling political necessities. Simpson avoids this simplistic view and examines whether having a scheme of “transitional justice” without clarification of the relationship between crime and politics could be detrimental to both the transition and criminal justice.

André Standing shows that the conventional understanding of organised crime with its parasitic “tentacles” extended deep into insufficiently protected nations is severely dated. He illustrates the multiple problems of this model with the history of organized crime in South Africa. First, the notion that it exists in opposition to state authority is clearly at odds with the reality of the apartheid regime which, among other things, took advantage of various criminal channels to defeat the international embargoes and sanctions it was facing. Second, gangsters are not simply abusing neighbourhood residents but often make up for the lack of state social control in dangerous areas, in effect replacing rather than displacing social control structures. Lastly, he uses Mertonian strain theory to show that the savage capitalism that animates gangsters is not, in its essence, different from mainstream business rationality. In sum, the apparent post-transitional growth in organized criminal activity is the result of a changing relationship with the state.

Two chapters examine the state’s treatment of offenders. Brian Stout and Catherine Wood explore the political and practical feasibility of diversion strategies for young offenders in SA. Cases examined include the legal history of the new Child Justice Bill, and a program targeted to young offenders accused of rape and other sexual offenses. This is one area where popular punitiveness and the government’s limited resources work in opposite directions. Diversion programs that manage to avoid the trap of net-widening usually reduce the state’s expenses by the sheer fact that they cost less than prison; on the other hand, they are contrary to popular desire to “get tough on crime.” The only sanction that is both cheap and tough is an accelerated death penalty (i.e. without multiple appeals), and is in fact a hot topic in SA.

Unfortunately, if the authors are right, the force behind the reforms is the conviction and efforts of a professional elite emphasizing the “children’s rights” angle — which in other countries has been shown to be less than a guarantee of success. Judging from the unending delays in adopting the Child justice bill and the reduction in clientele in diversion programs, South Africa is no exception. Dirk van Zyl Smit also shows how the turn to populist punitiveness in the last few years has had one foreseeable but ignored consequence: South Africa’s prisons are grossly overcrowded. Worse yet, because of “tough” new measures regarding bail release, the population segment that has augmented the most is that of innocents awaiting trial.

This demonstrably misplaced confidence in the power of criminal law to solve all problems is present everywhere. Despite a strong current in feminist thought that rejects law, and especially criminal law, as a solution to problems — and especially problems directly linked to male domination such as wife abuse — Dee Smythe and Penny Parenzee describe how many South African feminists nevertheless have pinned their hopes on improvements of the laws against “domestic violence.” Those who thought such legislation was difficult to enforce in countries like Canada or the USA will be shocked to see the obstacles in South Africa, among which are the non-existent resources, the dysfunctional police agencies, the deficient rural infrastructure, the conflicts with labour practices and with multiple local traditions, etc. In short, these laws are designed to work best in Western middle class world, and while they may not be quite the panacea there, they are close to useless everywhere else. While many still see the answer to the failure of law in more law — harsher sentences, mandatory arrest and forced prosecution policies — the authors submit that it would be more productive to increase efforts at tangible improvement of the victims’ actual situation. A similar situation is described in chapter 7 by Bill Dixon. The object is the National Crime Prevention Strategy (NCPS) and its promise of addressing the “root causes” of crime — in apparent blissful ignorance of the endless scientific controversy that surrounds them. The fact that the matter of root causes is not yet settled certainly shows a failure of criminology at its most basic level — a sad fact easily overlooked by government strategists, who have produced an impressive list of “causes” for crime in South Africa. However, as Dixon notes, discussing — or even reading — the list of purported causes is superfluous, since in practice the NCPS is in no way targeted at them. This shouldn’t be surprising, since in the short and medium term government can do little about the “breakdown of traditional communities” or “the growth of a culture of violence.” However, while at the same time the entirety of the remainder of the criminal justice system has been made more reactive and repressive than ever, according to Dixon the meaning of addressing the root causes has shifted, and now means that the various forms of hardship, suffering and distress that afflict South Africans will be seen as social problems only to the extent that they can be represented as criminogenic.

On the whole the book offers an fascinating overview of varied corners of the South African crime-and-politics laboratory. Most of the experiments seem to be reaching a boiling point, or have already exploded, but that is precisely what makes it interesting for criminologists.