Two years before South Africa’s first multiracial elections in 1994, I spent a month or so traveling through parts of the country as a 22-year-old backpacker.
My time there was part of a year’s backpacking around the globe, during which I saw four instances of violence committed in public, and three of them were in South Africa. Two of these incidents were black women fighting each other, while the third was a white night club bouncer who lost his cool against some white patrons.
Luckily, in none of these instances did anyone appear to be seriously hurt, but it reflected the tensions in the country.
I arrived in South Africa a few months after the Boipatong massacre, where 40 people were killed by supporters of the pro-Zulu Inkatha Freedom Party. After a month of being in the country, there was also the Bisho massacre, where 28 protesting supporters of Nelson Mandela’s ANC were killed by soldiers from Ciskei, one of South Africa’s then racially segregated homelands as per the apartheid system.
For a short and basic explanatory video on the apartheid system, see below:
Given the problems South Africa had, my parents were glad when I left, but it was, and still is, a beautiful land like most places are if you look closely. I met some great people, both black and white, but the overall societal problems were very confronting. When I stayed with friends in Johannesburg at night, they’d lock a large iron ‘rape’ gate at the bottom of the stairs that led to their bedrooms.
Some people back then were discussing if the country would end up in a civil war situation.
Thankfully, civil war didn’t occur, and the country held its elections in 1994, with Nelson Mandela winning and then promoting peace and reconciliation while in power.
There was a lot of hope for a while that South Africa would become the great example for the whole of Africa, but this did not eventuate.
While the country has made some great strides in both economic and social areas, it still suffers from high levels of inequality and poverty. Unemployment is at 25 percent, but for the youth it is double that. Add to that elements of social exclusion and marginalization, and it can only promote violence and criminality in society.
Is South Africa more violent now than it was 20 years ago? Statistics say yes, and I know I’d be a lot more reluctant to visit the country today as compared to 1992. Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu also said as much a few years ago.
“Very simply, we have become one of the most violent societies. That is not what we were even under apartheid, but we are now,” Archbishop Tutu said according to Business Day.
“The world was thrilled when freedom came to our land,” he said. “We pray that South Africa will recover its own sense of worth, the sense of worth of every single human being, and our sense of ubuntu (human kindness), and that we become a gentle, caring, compassionate society.”
Unfortunately, violence for many South Africans has become normalized, and it is the low income areas that are the most affected.
In the more affluent areas of Johannesburg and Pretoria, residents live behind high walls and pay private security guards to keep criminals at bay.
See the video below from Vice News about the reasons behind South Africa’s boom in private security services:
Sadly, it has gotten to the point where violence pervades and affects every aspect of the lives of South Africans, says the most recent edition of The South African Crime Quarterly.
“It poses a significant threat to the overall health and well-being of our nation, and has a negative impact on development,” the Quarterly says.
South Africa’s murder rate is about five times higher than the 2013 global average of 6 murders per 100,000, according to the Institute for Security Studies and Africa Check.
Over 40 murders a day occur in South Africa.
This report below was made in 2008, but the issues it covers are the same as what South Africans face today.
It’s the high profile murders, such as the killing of the national football team captain and goalkeeper Senzo Meyiwa, that make the headlines.
And yes, there was the highly published case of Oscar Pistorius shooting his girlfriend, as well.
With violence being so prevalent, it can only further traumatize large portions of the population, especially its youth. Sadly, child abuse is also out of control, and South Africa has the reputation for being the rape capital of the world. Social workers though say the problem is under-reported.
Added to these challenges mentioned above is the general lack of trust the population has in the police force and the criminal justice system, which are seen as inefficient and corrupt.
Meanwhile, white farmers are saying they are under attack and being killed on their farms, and recently, foreigners from other African nations have been targeted by xenophobic gangs. Seven foreigners were killed recently, resulting in the South African army being called out onto the streets to restore order.
Gangs say the foreigners take their jobs and undercut wages. Similar attacks occurred in 2008 when 62 foreigners were killed in Johannesburg’s townships.
But even if there’s such discourse within society, you will always come across good people trying to set things right. Be it volunteers helping young sexual assault victims, or communities banding together to promote civility, there are good people out there trying to make a difference.
Let’s hope that somehow, one day South Africa does become, as Archbishop Tutu said, “a gentle, caring, compassionate society” that so many people had hoped it would.
Check out this video about one community in Cape Town trying to make a positive change: