godfrey_280The decade of the 1980s was one of the most violent periods in South African history, characterised by the extensive use of force by the South African state and those opposing it. This political violence has since received coverage in the media and has been exposed by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC).

By the 1990s, the term “culture of violence” was frequently used to describe the conflict that shrouded South African society. The nature of this violence bled into all parts of public life, undermining the ethical and social fabric of society. It should be noted that the divisions between what is labelled as “political” violence and what is termed “criminal” violence in South Africa has always been blurred. Today political violence is completely over-shadowed by the high levels of violent crime the country is experiencing.

Yet, violent crime is by no means consistent across the country. Murder rates in are highest in the rural areas, not in the urban centre as is often assumed.

Race also remains a major forecaster of violence in South Africa. There is a popular perception mainly held by white South Africans that the wealthy are more affected by crime than the poor. This is partly true, the rich are twice as likely to be victimised – usually with property related crimes – than the poor. But the poverty-stricken are nearly 80 times more likely to die or become injured by crime than the well-off. Social inequality and deprivation caused by the apartheid system are at the root of most violence in South Africa. As a result, justice is frequently carried out by community members as a preferred alternative to the criminal justice system.

The majority of South Africans view the criminal justice system with suspicion and scepticism. This is not surprising considering that, “one in seven murders, one in 13 reported rapes, one in 34 armed robberies, one in 50 car thefts and one in 55 car hijackings results in a conviction.” (Cawthra & Kraak) Forty-one per cent of South Africans would either “never” or “hardly ever” trust the police to investigate a crime or catch criminals.

The lack of faith in the criminal justice system by many wealthy South Africans has lead to increasing numbers of citizens turning to private security companies for their policing needs. It is estimated that the private security industry in South Africa has grown from R141 million in 1978 to R8 billion currently. There are at least twice as many security guards than policeman in the country – many of these guards are poorly trained and armed, and the security industry is poorly regulated. Most people cannot afford the services of a private security company. Vigilantism then becomes the poor man’s version of private security.

In societies going through transition, it is often the large-scale political conflict and criminal violence that tends to receive attention at the expense of the more “smaller” acts of violence that ripple through communities, generally going unnoticed everyday.
Ilan Godfrey

(The audio in this slideshow is an excerpt from an interview with Shirley Ginsburg. You can hear the interview in its entirety below.)

Listen to the full interviews Ilan Godfrey conducted with three victims of crime in South Africa.

Shirley Ginsburg


John Robinson