Addressing inequality would reduce crime in SA

The only way to deal with crime effectively is not to introduce harsher penalties, but to deal with the stark inequalities in society, writes Ryland Fisher.

A few weeks ago, as I have done many times before, I picked up a car at OR Tambo International Airport in Gauteng and drove off, still trying to figure out how the gears worked and where the light switches were, among other little challenges.

As I left the airport parking garage, a uniformed policeman jumped out of the shadows and told me I had gone through a stop sign. He asked to see my licence and told me he would have to fine me R500. I did not protest, although I could not see a stop sign. I said he must do what he needed to do. There was a moment of silence when, I suspected, he was waiting for me to offer him something in return for not writing out the fine.

The next moment he stopped another car and shouted at me that I could drive off. I drove away, feeling not relieved, but uncomfortable about what could have transpired. If I had broken the law, then I should be fined, but I was not prepared to pay a bribe to anyone, especially not a policeman.

I suppose at least a few of the people the policeman stopped that day would probably have offered him payment to avoid getting a fine and he would probably have accepted those offers, if one is to believe the stories about Gauteng police. I could be completely wrong and the policeman could have let me go because I looked like a nice, decent human being.

Not too long ago, I had a conversation with a friend in Rosebank, Joburg, who told me he was scared of the police in Cape Town but not the police in Joburg. “At least one can bribe the police in Joburg,” he said.

One of the reasons crime is so widespread is that there is a market for it and this market is sometimes promoted by the very people who loudly profess to be against crime. The more people pay bribes, the more there will be demands for bribes. The more people buy stolen property, the more things will be stolen. I grew up in Hanover Park and I remember how you could place your orders before the start of the weekend for any make of car radio or other appliance and it would be delivered before the end of that weekend.

Crime thrived in what appeared to be more affluent surrounding areas because people in Hanover Park provided a ready market for stolen goods. If most people in Hanover Park had refused to buy stolen goods, there would have been no market and the crime levels in surrounding areas would probably have dropped. For many people in Hanover Park, buying stolen goods was the only way they could own luxury items which many in the wealthier suburbs took for granted.

There are many motivating factors for crime. Poverty is one and in a country such as South Africa where large numbers are poor, it is almost understandable that there is a large amount of crime.

Greed is, of course, another major factor when it comes to crime. Too many people have dabbled in crime because they were not otherwise able to satiate their desire for worldly possessions. In South Africa, with its huge inequalities between rich and poor, it is not unexpected that crime levels will be high, especially crimes involving the redistribution of property.

I remember as a child, even before I was old enough to go to school, going to work with my mother, a domestic worker, in the wealthier southern suburbs of Cape Town. I was fascinated by the opulence in these suburbs. Coming from Hanover Park meant I’d not been exposed to what most people considered normal in middle-class suburbs, including having a warm bath or shower. We were used to warming pots of water on a Primus stove before having a bath.

I was so grateful when the “madam” – that is what we had to call my mother’s employer – gave me her son’s old clothes to wear. Anything they gave me was much better than what I had.

I can never condone any kind of criminal activity, but it is easy to opine and philosophise about crime when you don’t have to worry about where your next meal is coming from. It is not so easy when you have nothing.

In an environment where everything is becoming more and more expensive and poor people are becoming even poorer, it should come as no surprise if crime escalates. Poor people, like everyone else, have to eat and have to feed their families.

The only way to deal with crime effectively is not to introduce harsher penalties, but to deal with the stark inequalities in society.

(First published as a Thinking Allowed column in the Weekend Argus on Saturday, 2 April 2016)