Why so violent?

Lee-Anne Germanos notes that abuse of power by police has increased by 32%

Why so violent

28 May 2020


In a time before the pandemic, South Africa could easily have been classed among the most violent societies. As a nation in lockdown, we are now informed that our rate of violent crime has decreased by up to 87% in some categories during the month of April.[1] Conversely, the abuse of power by police officials has increased by 32% during the same month, according to IPID (which maintains that it does not have oversight over the 75000 soldiers deployed throughout the country).[2] We are all too aware that the conditions that have provided for this drastic drop in violent crime are temporary. So the question to be asked remains: why are we so violent?

South Africans discuss the efficiency and effectiveness of its criminal justice system as though it is the singular most important factor in dealing with criminal behaviour. Very seldom do the factors which produce such a violent society make their way into conversation. Preventative measures, as an effective means of reducing the need for punitive measures, are hardly focused on. The purpose of this brief, therefore, is to highlight the reasons why South African society is so violent, as opposed to presenting information restating that it is.


Violence is, in part, socially learnt behaviour. There is of course violence that is associated with mental and emotional dispositions and pathologies.[3] For the most part, South African society’s violent roots stem from its legacy of colonialism and Apartheid. These legacies fostered ambivalence towards the law, produced an unequal socioeconomic society with a low sense of self worth, and encouraged the abuse of substances to numb these realities.[4] There are of course other factors, which will also be discussed, but these are the nub of the reasons for South Africa’s violent crime rate.

Institutionalised racism, starting as far back as colonisation, would invariably have contributed to low levels of self esteem among the oppressed populations. These low levels of self esteem have now been cemented by, what has become, institutionalised inequality (no longer on the basis of race but rather socioeconomic standing built on historically disadvantaged backgrounds).[5] The psychological effects of these legacies, and continued inequality, are underrated because they are not visible and are therefore overlooked in crime prevention policy. The majority of South Africans continue to live below the poverty line[6] with little opportunity to better their circumstances based on high unemployment rates[7] and poor marketability (unskilled labour force). This means that the low levels of self worth are perpetuated. The added frustration of not being able to change one’s circumstances exacerbates the situation and creates a dangerous sense of disempowerment. Substance, as well as physical, abuse become outlets and, themselves, contribute to the high rates of violent crime.[8]

In households and communities where the above is played out in front of children, a cycle of violence begins to perpetuate itself. A gang culture has also developed in some of these disempowered communities. This culture is centred around not only a criminal economy, but a desire to be respected – which is achieved by instilling fear through violence.[9] Coupled with that is another factor of violent crime and a catalyst for “respect-wielding” violence: toxic masculinity.[10] An already disempowered population with a constitution that promotes gender equality produces an additional threat to power to the part of the population which perpetrates over 90% of all crime – males.[11] The disempowerment factors of violent crime do not end there. A consumerist global economy has also assisted in the deterioration of the South African social fabric through its promotion of materiality, and praise for the elites for whom it caters. Adding, of course, to a feeling of worthlessness for the majority of South Africans for whom this is all out of reach.[12]

Another consequence of Apartheid is a widespread culture of ambivalence towards the law.[13] Previously it was in resistance to racist laws that were considered illegitimate by their nature. Today the ambivalence continues, but without the same rationale to back it. The transition to democracy did little, if anything, by way of a mindset shift towards regard for the law or a change in attitude towards law enforcement agents. Given the increase of the brutality displayed by members of the police and army during the current lockdown, not much seems to have changed in terms of policing style either to encourage a change in attitude.[14]

Then there is the issue of the criminal justice system as a whole, which plays the most visible role in crime prevention. As mentioned earlier, the question of its effectiveness and efficiency is the most topical discussion when it comes to South African crime. The lack of skills in and capacity of the system renders it unacceptably ineffective[15], which then has a knock-on effect. Because public trust and confidence in the system is low, the cooperation required from the public during investigations, and even the reporting of crimes, is also compromised.[16] When the cogs of the justice system do turn, correctional service facilities are themselves places of violence. Wardens do not view prisoners as being worthy of protection from violence.[17] This not only adds to an already low sense of self worth, but almost rules out the possibility of rehabilitation. In fact, the odds of releasing a more violent individual at the end of a prison sentence are higher.

There has also been a legacy of war in the southern African region. Resultantly, a proliferation of arms has made their way into the country, which makes them easily available. Cash-in-transit heists have characteristically been carried out by criminals who are ex-military.[18] The criminal culture that exists in South Africa has also created a criminal economy. That makes it even harder to free the country from the grips of criminality, as there is much to lose for these firmly established criminal networks.[19]


So how is it that the violent crime rate has decreased so drastically during this lockdown period? The most obvious answer would be the restriction on movement. This affects both the reporting of crime as well as possibly the commission of it (due to increased visibility). Another possible factor is the ban on the sale of alcohol (even though a black market for its sale has arisen) and therefore has possibly resulted in a reduction in the abuse thereof. These are crime reduction factors that will not continue to exist indefinitely. In fact, once there is no longer a need for these restrictions, with the threat of the pandemic gone, the country will be in a more desperate position economically. The unemployment rate will have increased, deepening both poverty and inequality. In other words, the same lockdown that has decreased our violent crime rate today, will be the reason for its increase (to levels that we have not yet experienced) tomorrow.

What is the solution then to South Africa’s frightening high rate of violent crime? Punitive measures in the form of the criminal justice system have clearly been insufficient as a deterrent and unsuccessful as a rehabilitation agent. We should turn our attention to treating the causes and not the symptoms of violence. Preventative measures should therefore become the buzzword and the focal of crime prevention policy.

The Emergency Response Action Plan on Gender Based Violence and Femicide, which was released by the Presidency on 30 April 2020, adopted the above approach as one of five key areas in its action plan. Early intervention programmes for children and community programmes for violence-prone areas are needed to reverse South Africa’s culture of crime by providing the psychological and social service support required, while simultaneously working to bridge the income disparity gap in South African society. South Africa requires a mending of its social fabric, and not just its economy. These recommendations[20] were made to the Department of Safety and Security in 2007 by the Centre for the Study of Violence and Reconciliation who were commissioned to conduct a study on South Africa’s violent crime. The recommendations have yet to be implemented.

By Lee-Anne Germanos, Legal Researcher, HSF, 28 May 2020

[1]Crime levels before South Africa’s lockdown – and what they look like now <https://businesstech.co.za/news/lifestyle/391877/crime-levels-before-south-africas-lockdown-and-what-they-look-like-now/> accessed on 11 May 2020.

[2]IPID presentation for the Joint Meeting of the PCP and SCSJ <https://www.documentcloud.org/documents/6884606-PCP-Lockdown-Presentation-26-March-5-May-2020.html>

[3]The Centre for the Study of Violence and Reconciliation, The Violent Nature of Crime in South Africa, 25 June 2007, pg 106.


[5]Ibid fn3 at pg 166-167.

[6]Five Facts about Poverty in South Africa <http://www.statssa.gov.za/?p=12075> accessed 11 May 2020.

[7]South Africa unemployment rate <https://tradingeconomics.com/south-africa/unemployment-rate> accessed 11 May 2020.

[8]Ibid fn3 at pg 173.

[9]Ibid fn3 at pg 150-151.

[10]Ibid fn3 at pg 169.

[11]Ibid fn3 at pg 137.

[12]Ibid fn3 at pg 167.

[13]Ibid fn3 at pg 163.

[14]Karrim A, Collins Khosa: Mistrust between gov and community, says judge as SANDF opposes court bidhttps://www.news24.com/SouthAfrica/News/collins-khosa-mistrust-between-gov-and-community-says-judge-as-sandf-opposes-court-bid-20200506 Collins Khosa: Defence minister's 'skop, skiet and donder' comments taken out of context, court hears, https://www.news24.com/SouthAfrica/News/collins-khosa-defence-ministers-skop-skiet-and-donder-comments-taken-out-of-context-court-hears-20200506 

[15] Ibid fn3 at pg 171.

[16]Ibid fn3 at pg 173.


[18]Ibid fn3 at pg 174.

[19]Ibid fn3 at pg 175.

[20]Ibid fn3 at pg 176-185.