Cape Times, 28 May 2008

PLEASE NOTE: Readers wishing to reproduce and reference this article
should contact the editors of the Cape Times for permission

We are all aware that South Africa is a very violent society. Every year approximately 18 000 people are murdered, and approximately 55 000 people sexually abused or raped. Although the media has recently provided the impression that there is a new crime wave, violence and crime are not new to this country with its long history of slavery, oppression, colonialism and apartheid. During the apartheid era, black Africans were generally seen as the major threat to the society by the relatively small group of whites. According to Antje Krog, listening to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission hearings, the feeling grows that the apartheid struggle was not really between racist, supremacist whites and brave, organised fighters, but rather between brutal white police and innocent black people. This perception allows no place for bravery or heroes but only for martyrs. Only innocent people were prosecuted and exploited by the regime. This reached the stage where only political leaders like Hendrik Verwoerd and PW Botha were personified as the sources of evil. They were regarded as the devils and we were the saints. The mechanism of scapegoating people and their subsequent expulsion from society has been practised by a large number of societies, with usually detrimental effects to the group being scapegoated. When the pestilence struck France in 1349, people reacted by accusing the Jews of poisoning the water sources and proceeded to massacre them. Hitler also accused the Jews of numerous ills; it was clear they were a threat to the pre-war German society and had to be dispossessed, expelled and later even exterminated. Anyone who was politically opposed to the communist regime in the USSR was identified as "insane" (any right thinking person would of course admire and adopt the communist system) and was locked up in institutions for patients with severe psychiatric disorders. In the post-World War 2 US, anyone with possible communist alliances, family, friends or even acquaintances was tarnished as dangerous to society and expelled from social life and any official job or institution. In South Africa there has been a strong tendency to deal with possible threats with this mechanism of personification and expulsion. When in the late 1990s, the era where both HIV/Aids and sexual violence and rape were starting to feature dominantly in the South African media, it was all too easy for the public to link these two. Child rapists were identified as evil carriers of the HI virus. It was thought that these people turned to "primitive witch doctors" who then prescribed the treatment of sexual contact with a child or non-sexually active elderly woman to be cured from their disease. The government was also implicated in this mechanism, since the health-care system was not yet providing anti-retroviral medication, thereby forcing HIV/Aids sufferers to find alternative treatment. Crime and violence are generally regarded as being performed by ugly, unknown strangers. We guard ourselves behind high walls, electric fences and require guns to defend ourselves in time of possible attacks. However, the evidence shows that a huge number of violent crimes are committed by friends and family (80%-90%) and not by unknown strangers. The reality is that much crime is associated with alcohol and drugs, which are tolerated to a large extent in our society. Approximately 70% of all trauma is closely linked to alcohol and drugs. The ideal place for most of us to discuss crime is around the braai, beer in the hand. We talk about how bad crime is and afterwards drive our cars home, intoxicated and careless. Xenophobia, in the greater context, may be an adverse effect of nation building. Since 1990 especially African immigrants have had a very hard time living in South Africa. Foreigners have suffered numerous attacks over the last two decades. According to the Somali Association, 471 Somali nationals have died as a result of xenophobic attacks in the last 11 years. This is only the tip of the iceberg. Numerous foreigners have been attacked, assaulted, mutilated and murdered. All these things occur while it is a well-known fact that foreigners, even illegal ones, contribute positively to an economy. The South African government has not clearly acknowledged foreigners and fails to create awareness about South Africa's national obligations. Often crime, job poaching and housing allowances are blamed for xenophobic attacks, but it is more likely that poor service delivery, lax law enforcement and lack of formal structures to resolve grievances have significantly contributed to these vigilante attacks. From a psychological point of view, the mechanism of personification and expulsion may render a temporarily (perceived) positive effect. However, this mechanism is a very immature, unjust and extremely dangerous method to deal with any problem. Serious introspection is required by our society in order to ascertain what value systems rule our present society and what messages we provide to each other. Blaming innocent foreigners only reveals our deficiencies even more.