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Will a Crime Wave Spoil South Africa's Political Miracle?

November 10, 1996|Jeffrey Herbst | Jeffrey Herbst is an associate professor of public and international Affairs at the Woodrow Wilson School, Princeton University

PRINCETON, N.J. — South Africans are obsessed with crime. As well they might be: The murder rate is 10 times that of the United States, nearly half the country's large businesses have had a delivery vehicle hijacked, and robbery is a constant worry. Vigilantes who publicly execute drug dealers are widely applauded. Fear of crime, fueled by the recent murder of a prominent German businessman outside his home, is deterring some foreign investment. There is even some evidence that South Africa's reputation as a violent country is scaring away tourists. Does the current crime wave in South Africa signal that the country's seemingly miraculous transition from apartheid to nonracial rule will be imperiled because order, the prerequisite for economic and social progress, cannot be maintained?

Not all South Africa is under criminal siege, to be sure. Crime is worst in Johannesburg, where the wave of violent assault and car hijacking has virtually hollowed out the city center. The Carlton Hotel, long the country's premier destination, has had to close many of its rooms because few South Africans or foreigners will venture into the central business district. Visitors apparently don't feel that the Carlton's offer of an armed chaperon for each guest is reassuring enough.

While not acceptable, the crime situation in other parts of the country is much better. Some parts of urban South Africa are best avoided. But many areas are safe and areas frequented by tourists are unthreatening as long as care is taken.

White-collar crime, committed overwhelmingly by whites, is as much a problem as the violent street crime associated with blacks. While estimates are difficult to make, it appears that money laundering, illegal export of capital and other business scams are at least as costly, in monetary terms, as are carhijacking and burglary. The sanctions-era ethic of creative circumvention of laws and the primitive nature of business regulation makes white-collar crime highly profitable. In addition, South Africa has become a major drug-transshipment point. The large numbers of flights to Europe attract drug dealers who can put the country's sophisticated, but poorly policed, banking system to good use in moving around their illicit funds. Still, it is violent crime that has caused the greatest concern inside and outside South Africa.

The causes of the crime wave are complex, and they go far beyond the simple fact that more crime is being reported. At its most basic level, South Africa is still a profoundly divided society. Especially in its urban areas, very poor black populations, often without adequate food, water and shelter, coexist with a white society whose lifestyle is modeled on Europe and the United States. Add the almost ubiquitous presence of guns, available at very low prices now that the wars around South Africa have ended, and it would be surprising if South Africa did not face a significant crime problem.

One of the greatest tragedies of apartheid--the presence of an entire generation uneducated during the 1980s--further aggravates criminality. Angry young men who heeded the African National Congress' call not to go to school know they will be the last to benefit from the country's transition. They have little to lose and much to gain from theft.

The police force, at the moment, also seems incapable of confronting crime. As the most racist sector of the old white-run state, the police have, by necessity, been the target of major organizational reform and of a campaign to instill a new ethos. It is exceptionally difficult to design and implement a comprehensive anti-crime package while undergoing such radical changes.

At the same time, the police are struggling to cope with a national effort to enforce budget discipline after years of overspending by successive white governments. An ideal head count for the police is about 162,000 employees nationwide; they now are about 22,000 short. Some provinces have been without new recruits since 1994; others have fewer police than before. Stories of police ineptitude, undoubtedly worsened by the demands of transformation and budget constraints, are legion. This year, for example, about 1,000 violent criminals have, so far, escaped from police cells.

Lawlessness, it must be remembered, is, in many ways, nothing new in South Africa. The old white regime was totalitarian, but in a particular way. Apartheid governments ruled areas of the country, especially black urban ones with a high number of migrants, by simply withdrawing from them and containing the inhabitants so that they would not pose a threat to white areas nearby. These "no-go" zones, as they were formally known, were run, in large part, by gangsters who could easily outgun the police. The Mandela government, in many ways, is simply confronting the problem of order in these zones.

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