In his famous poem, “I am an African”, former president of the Republic of South Africa, Thabo Mbeki, reflects on the beastly nature of a capitalist system that erodes the very humanity of people. Of criminals he says: Perhaps the worst among these, who are my people, are those who have learnt to kill for a wage. To these the extent of death is directly proportional to their personal welfare…Among us prowl the products of our immoral and amoral past – killers who have no sense of the worth of human life, rapists who have absolute disdain for the women of our country, animals who would seek to benefit from the vulnerability of the children, the disabled and the old, the rapacious who brook no obstacle in their quest for self-enrichment.”
The profundity of Mbeki’s sentiments was demonstrated a few days ago with the murder of Sibusiso Khwinana, the lead actor in critically acclaimed local production, “Matwetwe”. Khwinana was brutally stabbed to death in Pretoria last weekend, allegedly over a cellphone. The callousness with which a talented young artist’s life was extinguished, just as he was beginning to make a name for himself in the entertainment industry, is only half of the tragedy. The fact that human life is so insignificant that it is worth being decimated over a cellphone is perhaps the greatest tragedy, for it demonstrates the depth of savagery to which we have, as a society, descended.
It is far too easy to condemn crime, to express shock at its heinousness. The difficult thing to do, and it is something we must do if we are serious about addressing the scourge of crime in our country, is to understand its roots and pluck them out at the source. Our collective discourse on crime needs to transcend the pedestrian, the simplistic reasoning that says criminals must be persecuted because they are monsters. We could build more prisons to incarcerate criminals, but this does not deal with the root cause of crime, and therefore does not fundamentally address the crisis as it pertains. The reality of the situation is that though their actions are beastly, criminals are part of the fabric that is our society, a reflection of its brokenness and atrophy.
In trying to make sense of the escalating nature if crimes in our country, many have posed the question: “What informs the surging levels of crime in South Africa?” This question might be simple, but it is not simplistic, nor is the answer obvious. While moral decay is undoubtedly at the heart of the problem, the root of the problem is a system that animalises people, a system that is deeply embedded in structural violence. It is not just the death of Khwinana that was deeply violent, but a system that dehumanises people to a point where acquiring that cellphone with the aim of trading it on the black market, whether to get resources to survive or to feed a substance addiction, is more important than human life. When a few thousand rands are worth killing for, it is no longer just a question of immorality, but a question of a deeply broken system of dog eat dog.
It is not an accident of history that empirical evidence suggests that where there is economic and human development (not just economic growth), crime is significantly diminished. A study of the latest Human Development Index report, published by the United Nations Development Programme in 2018, juxtaposed with reports on global crime rates, demonstrates that comparatively, countries with higher HDI have lower levels of crime, particularly petty economic crimes such as robberies the likes of what led to Khwinana’s death.
And so while it is undoubtedly important that we call on law enforcement agencies to spare no expenses to apprehend and prosecute criminals, because understanding the root cause of crime doesn’t negate its consequences to society, it is also imperative that we also insist on the structural transformation of our society. The transformation of the economy of South Africa would set parameters for redressing systematic challenges that feed into or lay basis for crime. Unemployment, poverty and inequality are the bedrock on which crime grows. These triple challenges are profoundly violent towards not only the poor, but humanity as a whole.
We hope that the death of Khwinana will spark a new conversation around how we theorise crime and violence in general, in order that our interventions are not reactive. Our country cannot afford a situation in which we are daily lamenting the severity of crime while conditions that give rise to it are not addressed. To do this would be to be complicit in its escalation. Khwinana’s death must not be in vain.
Kgabo Morifi is a PhD candidate and Research Associate at the Tshwane University of Technology and Pheto Matshwi is a postgraduate student at North West University.