One Nation, Under Siege

Eleven years ago, my first year living in New York, I sat on the roof of International House on the edge of Harlem, with hundreds of other students, raucously celebrating as elections in South Africa, half a world away, finished off the apartheid regime and brought Nelson Mandela's African National Congress to power. Drinking beers and singing freedom songs, none of us doubted that the election signified a historic event as transformative as the razing of the Berlin Wall.

Back then, New York, a city long plagued by high crime rates, drugs, and vicious gangs, was also undergoing a transformation, becoming a place of low crime and urban revival. But it was doing so partly through fairly brutal policing strategies that exacerbated racial divides. Police began systematic crackdowns on “lifestyle” crimes they had previously ignored -- such as graffiti, street hustles, and minor drug use -- on the theory that this would signal a restoration of public order. Meanwhile, in addition to these new coercive, “zero tolerance” tactics, the city was also embracing innovative crime-prevention methods such as an increased cooperation between police and community representatives, and the use of computerized statistical data (COMPSTAT), first pioneered by then–Transit Police Chief Jack Maple, to identify crime hot spots and place police patrols accordingly.

Criminologists are still debating the relative effects of get-tough policing and prosecution, computer-assisted techniques, and general societal changes, including a leveling off of crack usage and the end of crack-distribution turf wars, the demographic decline in the number of young men on the streets, and the booming economy of the 1990s, which lowered unemployment and also brought more money for drug rehabilitation and neighborhood-regeneration projects. But there is no debating the fact that New York City became a safer place.

Today, meanwhile, South Africa is a year into its second decade of democratic rule. It is, in many ways, one of the most uplifting of recent international stories. Yet, tragically, many of the same crime issues that plagued New York are playing out on a far more devastating scale across South Africa, a land of more than 745,645 miles and more than 40 million people. With about 25,000 murders per year and tens of thousands more attempted murders, post-apartheid South Africa has murder rates only briefly approached in America during the worst years in the most run-down urban ghettos. An entire country lives, day in and day out, with the siege mentality that residents of the South Bronx, Anacostia, Compton, and Southside Chicago experienced during the late 1980s.

“There was a time we criminologists would have done the lefty thing and said it's a moral panic,” says University of Cape Town criminology professor Elrena van der Spuy. “But, today, where does the panic end and reality begin? Dinner-table conversation in this country suggests a country at war with itself.”

Lately, many of the policing strategies used to curtail crime in the Big Apple have been hawked to civic and business leaders in Cape Town and Johannesburg, first by former New York City Police Commissioner William Bratton and then by ex-Mayor Rudy Giuliani. Police forces have created specialized rapid reaction forces somewhat akin to the SWAT–team policing expanded in America during the 1990s. At times, the police have tried saturating high-crime neighborhoods. In central Cape Town, now a phenomenally dangerous city, a public-private law-enforcement partnership has worked to create zones of safety aggressively patrolled by police and private security companies, comprehensively covered by surveillance cameras.

More than 187,000 sentenced prisoners and inmates awaiting trial are now behind bars in South Africa. Between 1996 and 2004, according to the latest report by the Office of the Inspecting Judge, the number of inmates serving life sentences almost doubled and the number serving more than 10 years nearly quadrupled. Yet, because the courts and the police are chronically underfunded and despite the huge numbers incarcerated, there are growing lines awaiting trial. Reflecting the ravages of aids, this huge prison population is also increasingly unhealthy: In 1996, 211 prisoners died behind bars; in the year ending March 31, 2004, 1,683 inmates died of natural causes and another 56 from violence.

The phrase “zero tolerance” has been embraced by police to mean tougher tactics, and by vigilante groups to mean doing whatever is necessary. “Zero tolerance,” says Peter Gastro of the Institute for Security Studies, “is obviously a quick-fix term which has been adopted because of the promise it holds out. It's adopted at all levels. In townships, community vigilante or safety groups use the term … . It's directly associated with New York.”

Some have welcomed the move toward zero tolerance. Others believe it a senseless diversion of resources. “South Africa is unique,” says Soraya Solomon, executive director of the Cape Town–based National Institute for Crime Prevention and the Reintegration of Offenders (NICRO), a nonprofit group that works with approximately 100,000 ex-offenders each year, trying to reintegrate them into society and the economy. “It's not America. We should find our own solutions to our own problems. We've worked hard to build this democracy, and we don't want a situation where people go crazy and there's violence in the streets.”

* * *

I had long wanted to visit South Africa. As a teenager in London in the 1980s, I spent much of my political energy in the anti-apartheid movement largely centered on the South African exiles living in London. I took part in numerous demonstrations, which usually culminated in a raucous rally in Trafalgar Square, directly opposite the beleaguered South African embassy. I started a branch of the Anti-Apartheid Movement at my high school; with several friends, I attended a vast concert in honor of the incarcerated Mandela's 70th birthday; I also went to the huge, triumphal concert-rally at Wembley Stadium after his release from prison, at which Nelson and Winnie Mandela addressed the world. For me, the end of apartheid was an event of almost unfathomable wonder.

A couple of years ago, the Social Science Research Council (SSRC) included me as the lone journalist among international academics in a study exploring how globalizing forces were affecting crime and punishment issues around the world. In particular, participants were to explore how criminal-justice models developed in the United States were affecting young people in diverse countries exposed to consumer society but often lacking legitimate economic means to realize their wants.

And so, with introductions to the best criminologists, anthropologists, and social critics in South Africa, I flew to Cape Town, stayed in a hotel at the base of the stunningly beautiful Tabletop Mountain and was chaperoned around the city by John and Jean Comaroff, both South African expats attached to the University of Chicago who, since the demise of apartheid, have wintered in Cape Town and conducted research throughout the country. From there I drove to Johannesburg, close to 1,000 miles through the Great Karoo desert, and on to Pretoria.

A key issue for our study was the export of zero-tolerance policing methods into Africa and Latin America -- and the way that an aggressive policing model developed in a hub of wealth such as New York would evolve in contexts where government lacked the resources to complement it with social interventions, anti-drug programs, and the like. How would zero tolerance play in countries in which all of the crime-poverty links documented in America are vastly exacerbated, and where upward of one-third of the workforce is unemployed? And, with such dismally high crime rates serving as a starting point in the countries that Bratton and Giuliani were visiting, how should success be defined?

In recent decades, countries in Latin America, Africa, and the former Soviet bloc (and, more recently, Iraq) have transitioned from authoritarian systems, in which a dictatorial state suppressed crime and social chaos, to more fluidly democratic societies. Rising crime has accompanied growing personal and political freedom and the rollback of state power, as Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld crudely noted in 2003 when trying to downplay the chaos in post–Saddam Hussein Iraq.

In Brazil, another country I visited as a part of the SSRC project, crime rates in the post-junta state have skyrocketed.

Sao Paulo and Rio de Janeiro host some of the most violent slums in the world, with violence now spilling out into previously inviolate middle- and upper-class neighborhoods. Increasingly, the middle classes vote for tough-on-crime candidates who advocate harsh policing interventions and an expansion of the prison system. In Sao Paulo alone, the police kill hundreds of hoodlums each year; yet few politicians take a stand against this extraordinary use of police firepower for fear of alienating voters who, in many instances, tacitly support these extrajudicial killings.

* * *

South Africa's crime explosion is perhaps the most extreme of those faced by states and societies in transition. The old apartheid system relied on state-sponsored terror to impose norms rather than inculcating respect for a universally applicable system of laws and law-abiding behaviors. Once that balance of terror dissipated, so did many of the constraints on criminal activity. This vacuum has been compounded by the chasms of wealth and poverty and lack of opportunity for millions of impoverished blacks.

As apartheid collapsed, South Africa miraculously escaped racial conflagration. But since the early '90s, its explosion of violent crime -- mainly carried out by young people, often affecting young people -- has produced an annual body count of 25,000, higher than that of most civil wars. South Africa's murder rate relative to population, meanwhile, is about 10 times that of the United States', and nearly 40 times Europe's. There are also several hundred thousand serious assaults each year. South Africa is in the midst of a carjacking epidemic, in which victims are frequently shot; it is bedeviled by endemic rape; and it has seen a revival of bloody muti rites leading to murders involving witchcraft and tribal medicine rituals.

Like America in the late '80s and early '90s, South Africa is a society preoccupied by crime, its media addicted to covering every bloody act in gory detail, its middle classes transfixed by the omnipresent siege mentality. In this atmosphere, myth and reality blend, creating a potent cocktail of fear, anger, rage, and demands for action, any action, to regain control of the streets. Across the political and racial spectrum, there are calls for the state to take tougher action against crime. “People routinely now use the phrase ‘weak state capacity,'” says van der Spuy.

Yet South Africa does have a functioning infrastructure unique in war-torn Africa, one that delivers potable water to homes, provides the basics of a universal education, has one of the best road networks in the world, some of the best medical establishments, a stable currency, and hi-tech industrial infrastructure offering access to a middle-class lifestyle to many millions of people, increasingly to black as well as white. The juxtaposition of First World and Third World, of civil-society aspirations and civil-war death statistics, has produced a crime-and-punishment saga unparalleled in its drama and complexity.

Everyone wants post-apartheid, multiracial South Africa to succeed. It is, in many ways, a testament to humankind's finest dreams and aspirations, to the possibilities of injustice turning into justice and coercion giving way to cooperation. Along with Mohandas Gandhi (the Mahatma), perhaps no 20th-century politician is as morally revered as Nelson “Madiba” Mandela. The world is so invested in seeing democratic South Africa flourish that it almost doesn't want to know about the severe societal problems that continue to plague the country. Nearly everyone knows about the state-sponsored violent appropriation of land owned by white farmers in neighboring Zimbabwe. But how many know that in South Africa, nearly 1,500 white farmers were murdered in the decade following the end of National Party rule, around one farmer in 200? Everyone knows about the aids epidemic in South Africa, but few outsiders know that many witch doctors -- in the rural hinterlands that are largely controlled by tribal authorities, but also in the sprawling slums splayed across and around every major city -- urge patients to have sex with young girls, even babies, to purify themselves; or that human body parts -- heads, hearts, genitals -- have been known to turn up in medicine encampments under freeway overpasses in Johannesburg.

In Cape Town, one of the most beautiful cities on earth, gangs in the Cape Flats township -- many of whose members, during the last years of apartheid, fused political activism with violent criminal activity, a hybrid identity known as comtosi -- have killed so many people that the city is now widely reported to be the murder capital of the world, with a yearly murder rate hovering at around 60 per 100,000. Everyone here has witnessed murder, or knows of someone who has. “Last October,” NICRO's Solomon said sorrowfully, a few minutes after she had lambasted zero tolerance, “the driver who came to pick me up was shot dead in front of me. They wanted his van.” Solomon also says there has been a large increase in the number of violent home invasions in Observatory, her own middle-class neighborhood. “Definitely civil society is feeling it,” says Solomon. “All along the southern [middle-class] suburbs, the gangs have moved in and the target is individual homes, driveways, hijackings. Nobody talks about how we've managed to build a democracy, how we came through without a bloody revolution. People are getting sucked into hopelessness. Nobody sees the positive anymore.”

Cape Town's middle classes haven't abandoned the region, and the city still maintains an extraordinarily cosmopolitan feel, albeit one clearly existing under siege. In sprawling Johannesburg, by contrast, the downtown has been emptied of money and of the white middle classes, in ways reminiscent of Detroit during the '70s and '80s. Eerily, the tall glass buildings and fancy hotels are now walled off, their (affluent white) owners have moved to the gated suburbs of Sandhurst to the north; and the city's streets, democratized by the end of the apartheid-era Pass Laws and curfews regulating where people of different colors could live and congregate, have been largely taken over by bustling ground-floor markets and stalls (peopled almost exclusively by poor blacks).

In the heart of government, Pretoria, a leafy, hyper-suburbanized place an hour to the north of Johannesburg, the tree-lined streets look almost uncannily calm -- a cross between Los Angeles and a beautifully landscaped French town. Yet every day one reads about fatal carjackings and other vicious crimes, and political figures here are routinely held up by local gangsters. “This country's very fucked up,” University of Pretoria anthropology professor Isak Niehaus blithely states, an ironic twinkle in his eye, over a Friday lunch in the university cafeteria. “It's just got a veneer of pleasure for bourgeois people like us, who can enjoy our lives. Under the surface things are just bubbling, bubbling, bubbling.”

Much of that bubbling takes the form of vigilantism -- a rejection of a state law-enforcement apparatus increasingly seen as both incompetent and corrupt. In the remote north of the country, for example, a black entrepreneur named Jonny Nagolego set up a phone-a-vigilante group called Mapogo a Mathamaga, creating a potent alliance of fed-up blacks and conservative whites through the retrograde slogan “To combat kaffir crime you need kaffir power.” In the large cities, a radical Islamic group set up a vigilante organization called People Against Gangsterism and Drugs that, by 2001, had degenerated into a gangster organization specializing in deadly assaults on the police. In Cape Town ghettos such as Heideveld, impromptu vigilante groups routinely beat, and even kill, accused criminals. The practice of “necklacing” -- putting tires around a victim and setting them alight with gasoline -- which began in the townships during the latter apartheid years as a brutal way of dealing with alleged government spies has now evolved into a fairly routine form of vigilantism. And cutthroat taxi cartels frequently kill drivers attached to, and passengers using, rival companies. Because of what he terms a “justice vacuum,” vigilantism, says Boyane Tshehla, then 32, of the Pretoria office of the Institute for Security Studies, “is not transitional anymore. It's something we should brace up to live with for a very long time.”

In the Cape Town township of Langa, Solomon quotes NICRO workers telling her that the neighborhood street committees are now saying, “‘We will not tolerate crime in our areas,' and they go out seeking people alleged to have committed crimes and they beat them up. The rich and poor are all saying we should bring back the death penalty, put these monsters behind bars, give them longer sentences.”

* * *

Reporting on South Africa's crime epidemic, I drove around in a tiny white Fiat, my windows shut tight, the doors locked from the inside, and my car permanently in gear (everyone says to stay in gear and to drive through red lights if you glimpse anybody -- but, goes the subtext, any young black man in particular -- loitering anywhere near your car). It's like the urban-apocalypse atmosphere described by Tom Wolfe in The Bonfire of the Vanities, his epic depiction of 1980s New York, only much, much scarier. “Every time you come home in this country,” explains journalist Mark Gevisser, “you do this check, this sort of siege check. Is everything as it should be? If not, you drive on. I drive through red lights at night. These are fabric-of-life things. Crime begins to serve metaphorically as a symbol for white South Africans of their loss of power, their loss of agency.”

I would arrive at the houses or apartments of my sources -- most of whom had established liberal and anti-apartheid bona fides -- park my car, and nervously walk to their doors (large numbers of people are killed every day walking from their car to their house). All my sources either lived in complexes surrounded by barbed wire or electric fences, or had very prominently displayed armed-response signs surrounding their residences. None wanted to be caught in a situation where he or she had to rely on a police response instead of a private security response to save his or her life. I'd sit and talk about life in South Africa, then head out to dinner in heavily fortified shopping malls ringed by armed guards and security barriers. And then I'd drive through red lights all the way back to my gated hotel, with the armed guard who tried to sell me drugs every night.

“The hysterical perceptions of crime are less racially split than often imagined,” says Jonny Steinberg, author of the acclaimed books Crime Wave and Midlands, a brilliant depiction of the tensions behind the rash of farm murders in KwaZulu-Natal. “The black and white middle classes are equally fearful when it comes to crime. And hostility to the underclass is a cross-racial middle-class prejudice.”

“You have a strange scenario where a country moves on quite stably at the level of its formal institutions,” adds Steinberg. “But out on the street, terrible things are happening. I think there'll be quite diffused but quite violent class warfare, and politics and business will be increasingly delegitimized in the eyes of the poor. Fear has seeped into the texture of life.” The Institute for Security Studies' Gastro warns that South Africa is likely to see “a rise in private security at all levels. As far as the middle class is concerned, the need for private security in your neighborhood will increase, and at the level of community responses, we're also likely to get increases, some of them falling into the vigilante category.”

Every black South African I interviewed -- be they academic, activist, think-tank employee, or just ordinary young person -- had either been carjacked or witnessed a murderous carjacking (despite many carjackers telling Steinberg that they only target whites or middle-class blacks). All of those I met talked of friends and family members who had migrated specifically to escape the monstrous levels of crime. The young people I interviewed at an advertising firm, professionals of various races, were terrified to take out their cell phones while walking down the streets of downtown Cape Town in broad daylight, for fear of being robbed. When I interviewed Sello, then 23, he told me that three cars had been hijacked on the corner of his street in the last few months alone. Boitshoko Leteane, 21 at the time, said that one of her friends was recently killed in a drive-by shooting outside a shop. Coming to her career job at the advertising agency, Boitshoko wears flat shoes rather than heels. “I know the possibility that I may have to run,” she explained simply.

* * *

I journeyed to South Africa with presuppositions: Zero tolerance was all wrong; the last thing South Africa needed was a heavy-handed police apparatus, as it still struggled with a past in which the police served a terroristic political function of destroying opponents of the apartheid regime; Giuliani and Bratton's pep-talking visits to Cape Town and Johannesburg were yet more examples of arrogant Americans attempting to reshape the world. Zero tolerance, in this schema, was a backdoor way to use the criminal-justice system to reproduce the disparities of apartheid through the rubric of law enforcement.

But after two weeks of reporting and observing, I reached a different conclusion: Zero-tolerance policing still seems wrong for South Africa -- not because it is too coercive but because it will likely prove impossible given the social realities.

What South Africa demonstrates, it seems to me, is the Hobbesian outcome likely to accompany a societal upheaval that fails to live up to the dreams of a downtrodden populace. In many ways, post-apartheid South Africa has created a hyper-capitalism that, while formally color-blind, has generated increasing numbers of desperate, marginalized people. According to then-36-year-old Steve Mokoena, a black man working with the township youth of Johannesburg, “There's a very potent sense of exclusion.” As we sat at a chic bar in a ritzy, multiracial neighborhood of Johannesburg, Mokoena spoke of “people feeling, ‘The new South Africa is not new for me. It is new for others.' The flight of the black middle classes from the townships creates a very clear them-and-us scenario.”

Zero tolerance “worked” in New York largely because the police were able to keep crime and violence away from the middle class, and because it was complemented by other social policies. The poor, the homeless, and the addicted who did not join the economic mainstream increasingly were either placed in city jails or state prisons or pushed out of the urban core and into invisible peripheries. In the South African context -- where the vast majority of the population, including the rural police forces themselves, live in these underserviced peripheries and there is woefully inadequate funding for constructive alternatives -- crime cannot be controlled or limited in the same way.

Instead of endlessly expanding South Africa's penal infrastructure and already stretched court systems, more state resources need to be channeled into jobs, health, and education programs; the creation of non-shanty housing stock for migrants to the big cities; gang-intervention strategies designed to break the gangs' hold over the upcoming generation of impoverished youths; and massive anti-rape and anti-violence campaigns. None of these is a quick-fix solution like zero tolerance. There simply are no easy answers to crises and pathologies as deep-rooted, as entwined with history, as those facing South African society today. Yet absent a more determined effort to ameliorate the country's egregious social disparities, crime will continue to be the festering wound at the heart of South Africa's young democracy.

Government plainly needs more capacity, for both social justice and criminal justice. The increased privatization of law and order reflects the hollowing out of government's functions -- the criminal-justice failures that have invited vigilantism, as well as the failure of the state, both during and after apartheid, to use its First World infrastructure to create jobs, health care, housing, and education accessible to the vast majority of the population. South Africa displays the several dangers that accompany a faltering state, when justice and social-control methods are ceded to the private sector -- to private security firms, to vigilante groups, to simple mob justice -- and democracy becomes an empty promise because of the dystopian viciousness of everyday life.

* * *

South Africa's inability to tackle poverty and control the criminal tensions that break loose in situations of extreme inequality represents one of the possible end situations for a polyglot America, with class divides largely mirroring racial divides and conservatives seeking to hollow out traditional functions of government. Arguably, South Africa's greatest lesson for American policy experts is not that zero-tolerance models but that dangers exist when a state abnegates its role as an ameliorator of economic inequalities -- and when a state fails to produce social, legal, and criminal-justice environments in which people, young people in particular, trust government to keep order and address their civic needs.

There are, obviously, some profound differences. South Africa's underclass is a large majority, whereas in America the dispossessed poor, of all races, remain a minority, their desperation and their crime more controllable, more localizable, by ghettoization and hi-tech policing, surveillance, and incarceration strategies. America's state apparatus -- the ability to project its power onto its residents -- is, also, clearly vastly more powerful, better funded, and more competent than South Africa's.

Yet, while America as a whole is unlikely to go down the South African road in the near future, impoverished pockets of the population and the areas in which these underclasses live may well come to increasingly resemble mini, sub-state versions of this dystopia.

As the Bush administration hollows out the state's welfare role, allows the markets to generate ever-greater inequalities domestically and internationally, exports working-class jobs overseas, and farms ever-more government functions out to a largely unregulated private sector, South Africa may well represent a disquieting picture of one strand of America's future.

Sasha Abramsky is the author of Hard Time Blues and an upcoming book on voting rights. Research funding for this article was provided by a grant from the Social Science Research Council, as a part of the council's Working Group on Youth, Globalization, and the Law.

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