In his Nelson Mandela memorial lecture on 29 July, President Thabo Mbeki expressed concern about an acquisitive spirit which has taken root amongst South Africans. Mbeki talked of a situation where 'personal wealth, and the public communication of the message that we are people of wealth' becomes 'the means by which we communicate the message that we are worthy citizens of our community'.
Accounting for the origins of this acquisitive impulse President Mbeki said that the white minority had been the dominant social force in our country and had entrenched in our society the understanding that personal wealth 'constitutes the only true measure of individual and social success'.
But while acquisitive values were strengthened with the growth of the market economy under apartheid, the distinguishing characteristic of apartheid was systematic institutionalised racism. The apartheid system designated the majority of South Africans as lesser beings in terms of their race, and in this way, on a daily basis, undermined people's dignity and self respect.
The pre-occupation with consumer symbols of status in current day South Africa may be a reflection of internalised status insecurity which is in part the legacy of apartheid racism. In the aftermath of a system which systematically denied them any dignity, it is perhaps inevitable that many South Africans have latched onto consumer symbols as key markers of their own worth. Instead of the crude racial categorisation of apartheid, the language of status now reflects the more sophisticated codes of the styling, marketing and advertising of consumer goods.
If it is true that South Africans suffer internalised anxiety relating to status insecurity might this help us to understand the combined problems of crime and particularly criminal violence in South Africa? Various factors in South Africa might be said to make South Africa 'crimogenic' but the question as to why crime is so violent in South Africa is one which continues to puzzle us.
In so far as status insecurity underpins acquisitive behaviour such insecurity can obviously be used towards explaining criminal behaviour which is itself acquisitive. Government's 'A Nation in the Making' report, released in June, highlights the extent to which consumer goods, consumerism, and 'conspicuous consumption' have become determinants of worth and status and how this compels people 'to operate on, an sometimes beyond, the margins of legality'.
Yet while most crime – burglary, theft, shoplifting, corruption, fraud – is acquisitive, most violence is not related to acquisitive motives. Violent crime in South Africa primarily takes the forms of robbery, rape or interpersonal assaults. Robbery, which constitutes violent acquisitive crime, only makes up a quarter of reported violent crime in last year's crime statistics. Rape and sexual assault constitute roughly one tenth of reported violence.
But sixty five percent of reported non-fatal violent crime involves interpersonal assaults. These are often related to disputes and disagreements frequently between people who are known to each other.
Money disputes sometimes precipitate these assaults. But according to the 2003 National Victim Survey most victims attribute these assaults to factors such as 'long term personal anger', 'sudden personal anger', 'anger towards the friends or family of the victim' and 'jealousy or other romantic motives'.
The mundane nature of these differences however does not moderate the violence which ensues. In the words of the SAPS 2002/03 annual report 'the majority of murders started as an argument which degenerated into a fight and then an assault'. Why is it that ordinary everyday disagreements provoke such extreme and pervasive violence in South Africa?
If status insecurity affects many of those who are able to take advantage of economic opportunities, presumably it also affects many of those who are not so able. According to 'A Nation in the Making' both income and expenditure Gini coefficients point to rising inequality among Africans 'with the educated and upwardly-mobile better able to take advantage of opportunities that have come with freedom'.
Under apartheid people could find solidarity with each other, and white oppression provided a common focal point for resistance. But today the market economy and the pursuit of wealth undermine solidarity. At the same time those who are unable to flaunt consumer symbols of status are marked as lacking in worth in terms of prevailing mores.
Rather than poverty itself, international studies point to a high correlation between inequality and violence, with status insecurity seeming to be the factor which provides the key link between the two. In South Africa however we are not just dealing with serious inequality but with the legacy of racism, and an environment of economic insecurity characterised by conspicuous consumption by an upwardly mobile minority.
Chronic status insecurity may therefore not only feed into acquisitive behaviour, whether legal or illegal, but also into a situation where people are inflamed by the most trivial insults to their dignity, whether real or imagined. Those who are most insecure about their status (and not just their physical security) may be amongst the most volatile. They may also be amongst the most likely to see a gun as a potential guarantee of their dignity and status, thus compounding the destructive consequences when disagreements escalate into confrontation and violence.
Status insecurity may also help to explain sexual violence in so far as this too is inspired by power and domination motives. In addition it may feed into the propensity towards alcohol and drug use, both of which are massively implicated in criminal violence.
Since 1994 South Africa has endured an orgy of violence and bloodshed in millions of apparently randomised acts of violence. If status insecurity feeds into this violence then this suggests that there is a deeply rooted need for us to create a society which affirms and restores the dignity of South Africans.
David Bruce is a Senior Researcher in the Criminal Justice Programme at the Centre for the Study of Violence and Reconciliation.
A shortened version of this article was published in the Sunday Independent as 'All's not well in the battle for status' on 20 August 2006.
© Centre for the Study of Violence and Reconciliation