Crime and violence are notoriously high in South Africa. If you drive around just about anywhere you will see high walls with barbed or concertina wire encircling nearly every middle- or upper-class home. Often, broken glass or metal spikes stick out of the tops of these walls to discourage thieves from climbing over. As I saw these and other safety precautions during my recent trip to South Africa, it caused me to ponder why the crime rate is so high there. I came to the conclusion that the effects of injustice take a long time to heal.
Part of the reason for the high crime is the residual anger at the injustice perpetrated by the whites against the blacks during the time of apartheid. Whites got all the best land and the best jobs while blacks had to carry internal passports called pass cards to be able to move around their own country. Wealth was unequally distributed in favor of the white minority. Blacks were forcibly moved to tribal homelands (think reservations) that were the least-productive land.
Eighteen years have passed since the end of apartheid in 1994. Since that time the black majority (making up 79 percent of the South African population) has ruled this nation of 50.6 million people.
It seems that the rebellion against apartheid created a deep distrust and disrespect of government and its leaders, no matter what their color. In some ways the new ruling black elite are little better than the whites. They have taken advantage of their power to gain wealth for themselves without really helping the many poor blacks. Additionally, many blacks seem to have a sense of entitlement that they should live at a lifestyle equal to the whites without having to work for that better lifestyle.
While I was in South Africa, there was a wildcat (non-union backed) strike at the Marikana platinum mine northwest of Johannesburg. Rioting black miners attacked police, some with guns. Police returned fire. Forty-six were killed in the violence, including some police, also black. Strikers had lost confidence in their black-run union and had struck for higher wages of 22 percent. They eventually got their demands in order to end the strike and the rioting.
This is an example of the residual effects of apartheid. Mine owners make large salaries at the expense of their workers. Black elites who run the unions ignore the needs of the majority of the workers and worker frustration and impatience at the inability to live a comfortable life style result in riots and violence.
Another reason for the high crime rate relates to the difficulty of getting a good education. Many teachers aren’t properly trained in the black areas. Among the black schools I visited there, it seemed like teachers and administrators found the smallest excuses to close schools. These attitudes about learning are mirrored in the students they teach.
Unemployment is extremely high, about 25 percent. Poor black youth see the abundance and prosperity of the whites and envy their wealth. Since education does not provide much of an avenue to achieve that wealth, robbery and violence are the alternatives.
Also, due to the separation of husbands and fathers from their families due to apartheid, and the loss of many parents due to the AIDS epidemic, the family structure of many poor blacks is fragmented. A lack of respect for authority of parents, especially fathers, who are often absent, allows bored teens to get involved in crime.
There have been improvements, though. I visited the black community of Loskop in KwaZulu-Natal where my daughter, Betsy Elfers Meyer, 33, has worked among the poor Amangwe Zulus for the past eight and a half years. She set up a nonprofit organization called Thembalethu (www.ourhope.org.za) to support home-based care workers. The 26 women she supports care for 352 AIDS patients and orphans whose parents have died of AIDS.
When I first visited her six years ago, most of the people in this poor community had no electricity. Today most do. I was pleased to see power lines going into the mud and cinderblock homes. Most still do not have running water or plumbing. For good reason this area has been described as one of the poorest areas in South Africa.
Ironically, this part of the Drakensberg Mountains is famous as a recreation and vacation area for prosperous whites from neighboring cities. There are beautiful homes and prosperous white farms. The contrast is stark.
South Africa has a high crime rate and violence is common. Some of the reasons for it lie with the injustice perpetrated by the white minority during the apartheid era. Some of it is due to lack of opportunity and some to a skewed sense of entitlement. Whatever the reasons, healing the effects of injustice seems to takes a long time.