Does anyone in charge care about violence? (21.11.10)

Does anyone in charge care about violence? (21.11.10)

By David Bruce

Two years after the completion of a substantial study into violent crime in SA, the government has still not shown any constructive response, writes David Bruce

The government has been far more responsive to the violence impacting on the middle class and formal business sector than to violence as it impacts on the poor.
Last week was a difficult one for the Centre for the Study of Violence and Reconciliation. In 2007 the government commissioned us to do a study on the violent nature of crime. Last Tuesday the study was presented to the Parliamentary Portfolio Committee on Police.

From the start of the portfolio committee meeting it became clear that the study wasn't going to get a good reception. The presentation by the ministry and secretariat of police gave considerable attention to the limitations of the study but said nothing concrete about whether it delivered any useful policy input.

The first member of parliament to respond said that "throughout the world crime is becoming more violent", indicating that we had not taken this into account. It didn't get any better; a number of MPs were concerned about our focus on the culture of violence. When and how was this culture introduced and by whom? Were we saying that the traditional culture of SA is violent? I don't believe we are by nature a violent nation, another said.

Despite the study giving considerable weight to the impact of SA's apartheid history, the charge was made that the study did not do this. Our policy proposals were all very well, but how exactly was government supposed to implement them? There is nothing incredibly new and striking about the study, a member of the secretariat said.

These responses raise basic questions about the study. Does it have any value? Was it a waste of taxpayers' money? Does it tell us anything that we didn't know already? For us it is a straightforward matter to answer these questions. The seven reports are available on our website, www.csvr.org.za. We have no doubt that they have considerable value.

In a statement last week we listed some of the aspects of the study which are new – methodologies, conceptual frameworks, perspectives, policy proposals.

But the issue of whether it has anything new to say is not the key point for us. We were not concerned to say new things but to put forward a coherent understanding of violence in SA and a framework for how to deal with it. In so far as other researchers have helped us to understand violence in SA, our job has been to reflect what has already been said. The things we have been concerned to say, whether new or not, are the things which it is most important to say about violent crime in SA.

Of these, one which we lay particular emphasis on is that government has been far more responsive to the violence impacting on the middle class and formal business sector than to violence as it impacts on the poor. But to deal with violence we have to deal with it "where it comes from" and this means understanding much more about, and engaging with, violence as it occurs in poorer communities, though it also calls for us to address the structural factors which underpin violence, notably the problem of inequality.

But it has not only been the middle class and business that government has been responsive to. It has also responded to the voices of organised civil society and has given considerable importance to issues such as violence against women and gun violence, to which civil society organisations like our own have given priority.

While this has been valuable on many levels, there are important aspects, such as male-male violence and knife violence, which have been neglected. To engage with violence we therefore need to respond to it in the form in which it occurs in each community, rather than responding to selective aspects of the problem.

Was it because of some of these messages that the study got such a bad reception from the politicians? Was the ANC perhaps worried about our argument that the government has not been responsive to the poor? Was there a deliberate decision to portray the study as having little value so as to discredit it?

Though we cannot know the answer to these questions, our sense is that this has not been what has determined the study's political fate. Much more important, it seems, has simply been an absence of substantial engagement with the study from the government. The study was completed not long after the "palace coup" and resulting change in ANC administration that took place in September 2008 and just before the April 2009 elections. This transition has resulted in a strengthening of the Secretariat for Safety and Security, the agency of government responsible for overseeing the study and for putting together the presentation on the study for the portfolio committee.

But, despite being strengthened, the secretariat has not yet engaged with the study in any depth. In particular, it has not engaged with the question of what the study has to say in terms of questions of policy and to evaluate the study in these terms.

The government's superficial engagement is reflected in the mixed messages that we have received from them about it. Thus we have been told that "they are not rejecting the study" but also that the study doesn't answer the question; that the study doesn't tell us anything new; or that it has a number of limitations.

No one from government has responded clearly to what we have said are the study's main messages or indicated whether they think these are useful or important.

The engagement by government with the study thus far therefore raises serious concerns about how it goes about developing more effective violence-prevention policies. Finding solutions to violent crime in SA is a complex challenge that requires thorough analysis and does not involve any silver bullets.

Our study presents government with an opportunity to engage in such analysis. Two years after the study was completed, it is an opportunity that it has failed to grasp.

Bruce is a senior research specialist at the Centre for the Study of Violence and Reconciliation

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CSVR is a multi-disciplinary institute that seeks to understand and prevent violence, heal its effects and build sustainable peace at the community, national and regional levels.

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