While we are in Cape Town for two weeks we hear of three specific cases of violent crime. Two from the newspapers and one from a woman working in our guesthouse.
In the papers the news that a video of the gang rape of a 17 year old girl has gone viral on the internet makes the front page of the Cape Times (19 April 2012) and on April 13th it is reported that Desmond Tutu's daughter's domestic worker had been found tied up and stabbed to death in the daughter's home. Her gardener is subsequently charged with the murder.
The woman working at our guesthouse told us that she was involved in a case where a township man had raped an 19 month old baby. The man had been caught by township dwellers and, as she put it, 'had his penis cut'.
In his incisive analysis of contemporary South Africa, After Mandela: The Struggle for the Soul of South Africa, Alec Russell, the one time FT Bureau chief in Johhanesberg, lays the blame for the appalling levels of violent crime in South Africa, compared with say Angola, at the door of the apartheid regime and also at the door of the resistance to apartheid.
It is hard to avoid concluding that centuries of race-based repression, applied for the last half of the twentieth century with scientifc and brutal rigour, embedded a culture of violence. Apartheid was predicated on force - the evictions and relocations of whole communities, the separating of families, the bulldozing of homes, [...] Too many families have been dispossessed, uprooted, and torn apart over the years. Too many relations have been killed or imprisoned. There are too many greiving and aggreived. (p.115)
But the resistance to apartheid also gave rise to its own violence and to the collapse of education and authority in the townships and the rise of a generation who had known little but violence and resistance.
Russell is critical of what he sees as the incompetence and corruption in the South African Police Service and the disbanding of the anti-corruption force, The Scorpions, when 'many of its former targets had taken control of the ANC [foremost amongst them Jacob Zuma] and were hell bent on exacting revenge by destroying them' (p.131).
Further thoughts: February 2013
The news that Oscar Pistorius shot his girlfriend, Reeva Steenkamp, caused me to try and put down a few more thoughts on the terrifying rates of violent crime in South Africa.
On 16th February 2013 The Guardian ran an article that summarized the situation: the national murder has been declining but there are still 43 murders a day; the chief executive of Chrysler in South Africa, Trent Barcroft, is in intensive care after a robbery outside Johannesberg, 12% of the population – 6 million people – own firearms leading to an arms race between citizens and criminals, and although there are strong laws on gun ownership there are doubts as to their strong implementation by the state. Gender violence remains at epidemic levels as witnessed by the recent gang rape and murder of , Anene Booysen, a 17-year-old who ‘died after her ex-boyfriend and others allegedly gang raped and disembowelled her on 2 February’ (see Guardian, 17th February, 2013).
I have also been reading another of Deon Meyer’s detective novels set in Cape Town, Devil’s Peak, where he mentions the widespread rape of children under 12 in South Africa and the belief that having sex with a virgin can cure HIV/Aids (pp.96-7) (see also Wikipedia: Sexual violence in South Africa and numerous media reports) – the so-called virgin cleansing myth that appears to have emerged in 16th century Europe and 19th century Victorian London as a mythical cure for syphilis and other STDs and also from Christian legends of virgin martyrs (see Wikipedia: Virgin Cleansing myth).
I have also started to read Frank Welsh’s History of South Africa where he talks about the ‘shockingly quick transition from a pastoral and agricultural economy to an industrial and urban society, and, most disturbing of all, the shattering revelations of a confident Christianity’ that swept away a culture that had developed a less tangible but ‘ultimately more powerful heritage’ (than the ‘magnificent art of the west coast’ of the African continent) that consisted of, ‘a peaceful and adaptable society in which disputes could be settled by a patient consideration of recognized laws’ pp. xxii and xxv.
A new youth culture craze is also on the rise. The Izikhothane are groups of township youths who delight in conspicuous consumption way beyond their, and their parents, means. The Sowetan reported on an incident where members of one group tore up R100 notes in Braamfontein, Johannesburg.
‘Izikhothane is street slang, derived from the Zulu word ukukhothana, which means “to lick like a snake”. The slang term originally referred to playful competition between various “crews” whose members see themselves as icons of street fashion and kings and queens of the latest dance moves’.
With its origins in 2008 as a South African version of the US black youth “dance battles” it has evolved into gatherings of rival crews in parks and open spaces who wear and burn expensive designer clothes and money. Both the possession of expensive designer clothes and contempt for them seem to be linked to a desire to stand out, to be a local and social media celebrity. Membership requires serious gear: Carvela shoes, Sfarzo Couture jeans, Nike, Adidas, Versace etc. ‘In the 90s, Carvela shoes were admired by everyone in the townships; today, but you have to be prepared to destroy them in public to show how rich you are’( The Hunger TV).
See the Izikhothane Facebook photostream here.
A previous township phenomena in the mid 2000s was 'swenking' (from English 'swank') and 'swenk-offs' where young and not-so-young men dressed up and competed to out-peacock each other (see Wikipedia: Swenkas).
In a country riven by AIDS, the Swenkas' insistence on cleanliness - washing is a recurring motif in the film - and the promotion of "chaste conduct" are difficult to fault. (See New York Times on the film, The Swenkas').
For some interesting thoughts on swenking and the Izikhothane see Julia Makhubela's Ms Jay blog.