Antony Altbeker's A Country at War with Itself is bound to challenge you to re-think the crime crisis in South Africa

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A Country at War with Itself: South Africa's Crisis of Crime
Author: Antony Altbeker
Publisher: Jonathan Ball (Johannesburg: 2007)
ISBN 978-1-86842-284-5



Polemicist and crime researcher Antony Altbeker is probably the only South African at the moment who has successfully managed to have the crime pandemic prioritised on the national agenda.

A patriotic South African and a crime victim who loves his country, Altbeker felt so strongly about crime that he decided to bequeath his research findings to the nation in the form of a narrative text. A Country at War With Itself - South Africa's Crisis of Crime is the harvest of Altbeker's scholarly expedition that has since become a savoury dish for all bookworms and ordinary members of the public, who devour it with an amazing, insatiable appetite.

This aesthetic work is an expository piece which discusses and analyses a number of major causes of crime wave in South Africa. Through its incisive arguments backed by reliable statistics, the masterpiece duly succeeds in eradicating our misconceptions and prejudice about the causes of crime.

Altbeker has painted his artwork partly as "a studiously sober contribution to the field" of criminology, but chiefly as a medium to share his views on violent crime with every South African in the hope that a cross-pollination of ideas will make South Africa "less crimnogenic".

The book interrogates "the nature of South Africa's crime wave and the effectiveness of the state's response". To make matters easier for his readers, Altbeker has sliced the analysis into four parts: to highlight the uniqueness of crime in South Africa, the nation's addiction to violence, the challenges in reducing crime with current police strategies, and the need to revisit the Moral Regeneration Campaign.

For a medical practitioner to be able to cure a patient, he/she needs to come up with the correct diagnosis. In similar vein, discovering why one's Toyota Corolla fails to start makes it easier for the motor mechanic to fix the problem. And this is exactly what Altbeker has done in his book. He has successfully identified violent crime as the cancer that corrodes the fabric of the nation by bringing home to us the fact that the uniqueness of South Africa's crime is not its volume, but its violence - our criminals are addicted to violence.

I am convinced that after reading this book, millions of fellow South Africans who relentlessly cling to the mistaken belief that crime has a black face, will realise that they were barking up the wrong tree and that they will unashamedly swallow their pride and embrace a different, realistic and judicious belief that crime is colour blind.

The work brilliantly probes various causes of crime, yet it fails to explain why South Africans would stubbornly watch, with consummate aloofness, an armed robber injuring or killing his victim. Of course this may sounds trite to some criminologists, Altbeker included, but it might help unravel the mystery of violent crime, more especially when it comes to motivating eyewitnesses to give evidence in a court of law. When Altbeker fought armed robbers trying to rob him and other patrons at a restaurant in Johannesburg in 1997, his girlfriend, fellow patrons and the restaurant owner never offered to help him. It was only after the incident that one of the cold and reserved onlookers called the police. A fellow patron, who was also a champion boxer, thought Altbeker was "an idiot" to wrestle with armed bandits, while his girlfriend "was deciding never to speak to him again".

No doubt Altbeker's call for a rethink of our approach to execute the Moral Regeneration Campaign is plausible. His belief that "if we want people to behave more decently, we need to become a more decent society" is in line with the craving of any moral responsible person. His call would have been more plausible had he brought the issue of nurturing our children to the reader's attention. How do we hope to secure a decent, safe and peaceful society if we do not pay special attention to nurturing our children into law-abiding future citizens? Are we aware that every five years we are unwittingly forced to welcome a fresh bunch of criminals springing from our badly brought up children? Almost 90 percent of our criminals come from the young generation. In the words of the author, "crime, especially violent crime, is committed almost exclusively by young men. As a consequence, societies [like South Africa] with relatively large numbers of young people tend to be more violent than others."

South Africa's crime problem has also been aggravated by floods of illegal migrants and refugees streaming from neighbouring countries. Altbeker rightly warns us that "it would be grossly unfair to tar all (migrants) with the same brush", but he agrees that "since most migrants are poor and young and male, many will get involved in crime here." Once an illegal immigrant has committed serious crime, he can easily disappear into thin air as he possesses no legal identification documents.

There are tens, if not hundreds, of causes of violent crime, but they are all offshoots of inequality - the social imbalance that continues to characterise the South Africa demographic structure. Highlighting the issue of inequality Altbeker writes, "Today, millions live on the margins of formal economy, their hopes and expectations unmet and arguably unbeatable even as white community continues to dominate the economy along with an 'emerging' middle class."

In fact, Altbeker is a bit reluctant to ram the point home to us that unless the powers that be stop its false promises of a better life for all, its lack of delivery and its denial of the existence of rampant crime in the country, we will soon find ourselves going through the first stages of revolution. Despite the camouflage and the reluctance, the book's title is apt and Altbeker's confession is true that we South Africans are in the midst of a low-scale war. "It is no exaggeration to describe ourselves as a country at war with itself." Needless to say, the terms war and crisis in the title imply an abrupt change of a clumsy form of governing.

"Revolutions," Aristotle tells us, "arise from inequalities, numerical or qualitative – from a numerical mass claiming equality denied them, or from a minority claiming superiority denied them. A revolution may result either in a complete change of polity, or only in a modification of the existing one" (Aristotle's Politics, Book 5.1).

For better or for worse, revolution will bring sudden socio-political change to our absurd response to our social problems, particularly the crime pandemic. According to Altbeker, our exceptionally high rate of crime makes our country "the crime capital of the world". Statistically, 50 people (about a busload of people) lose their lives every day in a crime-ridden South Africa. This gives us 19 000 people (a crowd at any of our cricket or soccer stadiums) who are murdered every year. And of course the number does not include the half a million or so cases of assault, serious assault and attempted murder recorded by police every year, to say nothing of hundreds of thousands of robbery, rape, burglary and hijacking incidents. Both the description of the state of crime in the country and its statistics also reinforce the advent of revolution.

In one of the book's chapters, Altbeker points out that "the plague of robbery is too difficult to cure" and goes on to explain why. Robbery is "devilishly difficult" for the police to investigate or prevent, simply because criminals cleverly use it as a response to inequality, albeit negatively - it is their tool to fill the vacuum left by social imbalance.

Speaking as a linguist, I perceive armed robbery - the unlawful act of depriving a fellow man of his possession through violence and intimidation as discussed in this book – as a language of signs which taunts and makes a mockery of the much talked-about justice criminal system. In its entirety, armed robbery expresses and exposes maladministration, incompetence and corruption in the whole criminal justice cluster. It positions itself as a challenge to the government's inability to deal with and attend to the nation's need for socio-political justice.

In destitute communities around the country, criminals are sometimes worshipped as angels because they try to right the wrongs of social injustices. This might also explain why squatter camp or township residents are reluctant to give evidence against a fellow resident involved in armed robbery.

Amidst this insecurity and lawlessness, one would like to know the way forward. Safety and security measures such as the criminal justice system and crime prevention policies could effectively be applied as a crime deterrent only in a normal democracy.

In today's South Africa, rampant crime prevents us from classifying our country as a normal democracy or a world at peace with itself. We live in a country where criminals rob us of our dear lives and property with very little legal impunity. As I write this article, the country is mourning the loss of one of its great sons, the internationally acclaimed musician Lucky Dube who was gunned down in a car hijacking incident in Rosettenville, Johannesburg a few days ago (October 18, 2007).

What, then, must be done to keep us safe and secure?

Apart from his proposal to "increase our conviction rates and lock convicted prisoners away", Altbeker does not have much to offer by way of a solution.

When my mother discovered that her fowl-run was infested with tsetse flies, she applied licking flames which duly consumed all these parasitic insects. Once the fowl-run had been purified she would then build the fowl-run anew. When the only available water was contaminated, she would filter it using ash or lime before boiling it to rid it of murderous bacteria.

Our salvation as a nation is in the hands of revolution. For how do we expect a dishonest, corrupt and incompetent official in the equally corrupt criminal justice system to positively transform himself/herself? Whether we like it or not, revolution will come when it comes. Fanned by inequality and popular anger, and the desire to break free from socio-political injustice, revolution will be the answer to our crime pandemic. Nobody has the power and might to force the pendulum to its equilibrium once it starts swinging. No human might will hinder popular anger from total destruction of a dishonest, corrupt and crime-infested system once society's patience has been thoroughly tested and exhausted.

As long as the pendulum is still in full swing from one extreme of misrule to the other, fury and fierce strife will continue to encumber the safety and security of our rainbow nation. Countries like Mozambique and Angola, to mention but two, went through protracted scourges of wars before peace was finally restored. We, too, will emerge victorious in our fight against violent once we have experienced a sudden, abrupt change in our socio-political institutions.

After revolution we will then plan and establish a sound criminal justice system and crime prevention policy, locking up prisoners and throwing the keys away. We will also do a rethink on moral regeneration.

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