President Mbeki's State of the Nation address earlier this month appears to reflect a shift in government's approach and attitude towards crime, partly in response to public pressure and despair at continuing high levels of violence.
Government has devoted major resources to the criminal justice system for some time. But the shift in approach and attitude, reflected in the more detailed attention given to the crime issue in the State of the Nation address, hopefully signifies that the substantial resources invested in the fight against crime will be supplemented by a renewal of effort.
Yet if renewed effort is actually to have an impact in changing the crime picture it needs to be informed by clarity about what why it is that South African society generates so much crime and violence.
The pervasive nature of crime, and seriousness of the problem of violence, point to deep level problems in our society. Of these problems one factor that needs to be understood more clearly is the role of inequality. Considering that South Africa is one of the most unequal societies in the world, it is not surprising that South Africa is so violent. Various studies point to strong correlations between income inequality and violence in other countries.
The post 1994 period in South Africa represents a formidable achievement of human social progress. But our society is one which still, to a major degree, mirrors the relationships which were established by apartheid, though in a somewhat deracialised and more democratic form. The unequal society which was apartheid South Africa has now metamorphosed into a society still characterised by radical inequality.
It needs to be said that the question of inequality has not really been brought into focus in the debate about South Africa's economic development path. Thus in his State of the Nation address, much of President Mbeki's attention was largely on issues such as 'quality of life', 'poverty', and 'want', which may, at least in theory, be addressed without addressing inequality. Measures to improve employment, and a social security system, which were also a major focus, would no doubt contribute to addressing inequality. Yet acknowledging this point is not the same as saying that inequality, as such, has been brought to the forefront of the government agenda.
Inequality highlights that there are factors at work which are not purely to do with meeting people's material needs, but rather speak to the need which people have for dignity and self-respect. For us to grasp how and why inequality feeds into violence we need to understand the dynamics that it feeds into and aggravates in society.
The significance of inequality in South Africa is essentially that it accentuates already strong feelings of low self-esteem and inadequacy about status, entrenched by decades of apartheid racism. In accentuating these feelings, inequality undermines people's self confidence in their ability to function in all types of social and economic relationship. As a result of these feelings people doubt that they are capable even of obtaining the type of social recognition necessary to establish and maintain basic social bonds.
For many people, the new order in South Africa, rather than setting them free, merely presents to them in starker form, the degree to which they are disadvantaged and psychically damaged. This accentuates their feelings of worthlessness, without even the consolation of solidarity which mutual oppression previously provided.
Amongst people who have obtained jobs and access to upward mobility, the prominent display of consumer status symbols is often used as a way of assuaging these types of negative feeling. But conspicuous consumption by an upwardly mobile minority merely reinforces feelings of low self-worth for the many people who are impoverished.
This feeds into crime and violence in a major way. Some crime is clearly a matter of survival but there is obviously another dynamic at work. For some this is manifested in the willingness to go to any lengths to obtain the symbols of status and thus, they believe, to guarantee the love or admiration of those around them. For others the absence of self- respect removes the motivation to act with integrity or to practise self-control.
Violence can also be a desperate last resort in situations where minor slights precipitate anxiety about maintaining the respect of other people, or an expression of rage provoked by feelings of humiliation. For others dominating and controlling other people through violence is how they manage to maintain the respect of their peers and reassure themselves that they do in fact count for something.
The significance of economic inequality is therefore not purely a question of relative income but that it produces relationships in South Africa which many people experience as undermining their dignity, reinforcing existing feelings of lack of self-respect.
The issue of inequality therefore speaks to broad underlying issues within public policy concerning its underlying ethos and motivation. If policy measures reflect the sense that the needs of the well-to do are addressed while the mass of people are disregarded, they feed into the sense that people have that they are second class citizens.
The point is well illustrated on South Africa's roads. Alongside taxis crammed with 16 people, pass vast flotillas of air-conditioned and luxurious cars occupied by a single person. A public transport system which enabled poorer people to travel with a modicum of comfort would add immeasurably to people's self respect and dignity.
Crime is a human disaster in South Africa. It is a disaster fed by the deep damage done by apartheid to people's feelings of self worth. As part of our efforts to remedy this damage it appears that we need to decisively address inequality. But the underlying question is not merely one of inequality. It also concerns the greater ethos or spirit which shapes public policy and to what degree public policy in South Africa supports people in feeling that they are worthy of dignity and self-respect.
David Bruce is a Senior Researcher in the Criminal Justice Programme at the Centre for the Study of Violence and Reconciliation.
Originally published in Business Day, 21 February 2007.