Nahla Valji, Bronwyn Harris & Graeme Simpson
Earlier this year a local couple made the news when they applied for asylum in the United States claiming that they were persecuted in South Africa on the basis of their race. The couple argued that as whites they would be the victims of crime if returned to South Africa, and they further feared they would be unemployed as a result of affirmative action policies. The judge presiding over their case rejected the claim, finding that although South Africa has high levels of both crime and unemployment, these are an 'all too common by-product of civil unrest and economic turmoil'. Moreover, the judge found that their race, far from exposing them to persecution, better insulated them from the real impact of these factors than the majority of the population.
For this couple, as for many South Africans today, our new democracy feels fraught with threats; in particular a fear of crime fuelled by the mythology that whites are the primary targets merely because of their race. From this perspective, the racialised discourse of crime not only misrepresents whites as the predominant victims, but conversely portrays blacks as the primary perpetrators. In the post-1994 context of rainbow nationalism, this discourse does not overtly employ a black and white vocabulary. However, race is commonly coded into everyday conversation. For example, 'the hijacker' frequently means 'the young, black, male criminal' in white suburbia. Consequently, young black men are still viewed with suspicion and fear and, similar to the past, they are often apprehended by the police in areas where 'they do not belong'.
A further consequence of the fear of crime has been an accelerating retreat of middle-class communities behind high walls and private security, prompting a withdrawal from public space and pre-empting the possibility of relationship-building. Although there is a growing black elite who can now afford to join the 'laager', a recent survey reveals that only 2% of blacks have a private security or armed response system – in contrast to 45% of whites – demonstrating that the preoccupation with criminal violence and victimization plays out in racially, as well as economically, defined ways. Viewing the new South Africa through a prism of fear creates an identity of victimhood that is linked to race; reinforcing the divided and racialised identities of the past.
Ironically, the construction of high walls, intended to protect, tends to fuel the cycle of fear and crime. Walls and fences have become the visible face of exclusion; a barrier between the haves and the have-nots. Although these barriers take on a different form today than in the past, they have the same effect of marginalizing a population that is almost exclusively black. This can fuel resentment and a sense of injustice on one side of the wall, and a sustained sense of entitlement and privilege on the other. Both sentiments pose an obstacle to meaningful reconciliation.
It is the fear of violent crime that has fuelled calls for the return of the death penalty as well as lent justification to uncontained vigilante violence. A fear of crime is thus contributing to cycles of violence, as well as threatening an embryonic culture of human rights before it can take root. Feelings of vulnerability also provoke a nostalgia for the authoritarian practices of the past and – amongst some – for the past itself.
The fear of criminal violence as well as crime itself threatens the reconciliation project in South Africa. But this is testimony to the superficiality of some aspects of our brand of reconciliation. We need to ask whether we have not too easily consumed our own 'feel–good' representations of a rainbow nation, which is routinely fed back to us through the commercial media. South Africans imbibe a steady stream of advertisements portraying a racially mixed and reconciled South Africa. New sitcoms on television are all painstakingly representative – including having a token Indian and so-called 'coloured' to ensure all former apartheid racial categories are represented. But this steady diet of candy-coated national unity bears little resemblance to reality. As previous issues of the Reconciliation Barometer have demonstrated, beyond the handful of black South Africans who can today afford to share in a shopping mall culture of corporatist reconciliation, relations between the races have not fundamentally transformed over the past ten years – with just under half (46%) of South Africans reporting that they never socialize across racial boundaries and a further quarter (23%) stating that they do so only rarely.
An uncritical acceptance of the reconciled rainbow nation has meant that each incident of racial violence is accompanied by a renewed sense of surprise, as though there is a genuine belief that in 1994 the country merely stepped across a threshold into unity and solidarity. A key example of this is the violence which shook the community of Kuruman in the Northern Cape late last year when a black man was allegedly accosted and beaten by three white men on the steps of a hotel in the town centre. Similar to incidents that have occurred across the country, the incident itself sparked the dry tinder of latent tensions and divided the town dangerously. One local councillor reported that more guns were sold in the six days after the incident than in the entire hunting season – sparked by fear amongst whites of a 'black uprising'. In reflecting on the incident the remarks of Mayor Mogodi, an ANC appointee, were telling. She noted: 'We never gave it (racism) special attention and thought it would wear off. This thing of the rainbow nation, we took it as something that happens instantly.'
At the same time, we must recognise that reconciliation is more complex than simply measuring inter-racial relationships. The violence of apartheid permeated communities, families and individual identities. Its legacy has been that, for some, violence continues to be a way of life. Although certain factors have changed with the political transition, many of the root causes of violence (including identities imbued with violent meaning) have not altered. Fear of violence must thus be interpreted as a more complex measure of violent patterns than simply white and black perceptions of each other. This is not to dismiss fear – indeed, perceptions do shape and impact on reality as the gun sales in Kuruman testify. As such, reconciliation initiatives must engage with the nuanced relationships of conflict and violence between South Africans within, as well as across, racial lines.
In a society where the root causes of much of the crime is not very different today to the economic impoverishment and race-based exclusion that shaped much of the violence of the Apartheid era, we ought not to be too surprised at the sustained levels of violence (and fear) in our society. Reconciliation, which is based on the narrow premises of political settlements and racial harmony without attending to the underlying sustained experiences of social and economic injustice and the culture of violence which this underpins, will remain vulnerable to the consequences of this social, economic and cultural experience of exclusion. The 'feel good' notion of reconciliation has prevented us from striving for an inclusive citizenship – one built on equality between citizens and the state and between each other. This is perhaps a better measure of how far we have come as a country than the mere day to day interactions that occur across the racial line and are so easily eroded by a racialised perception and fear of victimisation.
Nahla Valji is a Project Manager at the Centre for the Study of Violence and Reconciliation.
Bronwyn Harris is a former Project Manager at the Centre for the Study of Violence and Reconciliation.
Graeme Simpson is a founder and former Executive Director of the Centre for the Study of Violence and Reconciliation.
In SA Reconciliation Barometer, Vol. 2, Issue 1, June 2004.
© Centre for the Study of Violence and Reconciliation