Quote of the week

[Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro] possesses, however, few of his predecessor’s resources, lacking not just oil revenue but Chávez’s surplus of charisma, humour and political skill. Maduro, unable to end the crisis, has increasingly sided with the privileged classes against the masses; his security forces are regularly dispatched into barrios to repress militants under the guise of fighting crime. Having lost its majority in Congress, the government, fearing it can’t win at the polls the way Chávez did, cancelled gubernatorial elections that had been set for December last year (though they now appear to be on again). Maduro has convened an assembly to write a new constitution, supposedly with the objective of institutionalising the power of social movements, though it is unlikely to lessen the country’s polarisation.

Greg Grandin
London Review of Books
30 January 2007

Crime, denial and democracy

As I drove home from work yesterday, I was amazed at how upset some of the (mostly white) callers to John Maytham’s show on Cape Talk seemed to be about the report of the Institute of Security Studies that suggested that there had been a decrease in the murder rate from 67 murders per 100000 people per year to “only” 39.5 murders per 100000 people.

There are now “only” 18000 murders per year in South Africa – most of them, of course, of people who are poor and cannot afford alarm systems and private security guards.

What amazed me was that the callers seemed upset exactly because the new statistics would support the President and his Minister of Safety and Security in his conviction that “crime is not out of control”. The callers all firmly knew crime was out of control and they had many horror stories to prove it. How dare researchers now come with statistics to embolden the enemy (as George Bush or mad bad Dick Cheney would have said).

Of course, these people had a point. The statistics are crazy. Having almost 40 of every 100000 people killed every year, means 4000 of every 100000 people will be killed in South Africa in the next 10 years. That means one’s chances to be murdered is quite a bit higher than winning the Lotto Jackpot or hearing a government minister apologise for making a mistake.

Yet, news of a drastic decrease in the murder rate should surely not incense people the way it did. Some among us would argue that people are angry because they are mostly white racists whose fear of crime is a vehicle for them to express their much larger fear and suspicion of black people in general. Talking about crime becomes a way of talking about “them” and expressing one’s fears about “them”.

I have made a more subtle version of that argument myself in the past but I think that in the present circumstances that argument does not hold.

It is true that crime in South Africa is not something that will be “solved” in the short to medium term and all of us need to realise that there are many different reasons for crime. However, it seems to me that even reasonable people who understand these realities and do not see crime in racist terms are insensed by the attitude of President Mbeki and others.

I think such people are angry because President Mbeki’s attitude is fundamentally disrespectful of us voters and in some way suggest a disrespect for democraticy itself.

It is deeply troubling that the President of a democracy can so easily dismiss concerns about crime merely because he beleives that tehse fears are based on perceptions (as opposed to objective fact). President Mbeki does not seem to understand that in a democracy people’s perceptions are rather important because people actually vote for or against you and your party based on perceptions.


Of course, he will claim that white owned or influenced media help to create negative perceptions of the ANC government. But in a democracy the media is part of the game and if you want to win elections you have to work with the media to try and get them on your side. You might not like it, but hey, this is the political reality to be managed in a democracy.


In the UK Tony Blair managed to win the election in 1997 in large part because he relentlessly sucked up to Rupert Murdock to get his newspapers on the side of Labour (“tough on crime, tough on the causes of crime!”)

To dismiss serious concerns about crime by voters as merely “perceptions” and to appeal to statistics that are not believed because one has never shown that one was in touch with the lived reality of people’s lives, is to act like a despot. It’s the “because I say so” school of politics that is the opposite of democratic politics.

If a significant segment of the population experience crime as a huge threat and have fears about it, a sane, democratic, wise political party in power will do at least two things.

First, it will take all the steps in its (limited) power to address the reality of crime. Vote more money for police training. Fire a few police chiefs who have amnesia or delirium tremens. Innitiate programmes that will address the causes of crime.

Second, it would demonstrate to the voters that it cared about the “perception” – even if that meant pretending to do far more than it was actually possible to do. Politicians in such a party would do what Azar Cachalia, the MEC for safety and security in Gauteng, did a few months ago when he announced that he would resign if crime was not down in Gauteng in 6 months. He showed he cared about the fears of the voters even if there was probably not that much he could do in the short term to change things around.

Modern politics is about perceptions just as much as it is about actual tangible results. Ask Helen Zille. But if you feel your party will never lose an election or if you feel you have a divine right to rule, then you can dismiss or mock people when they disagree with you or when their experiences differ from what your statistics tell you.


If President Mbeki really believed that the crime issue was a mere perception, he should at least be able to ask himself what role he and his government had played in creating that perception. The fact that he does not even think of asking that question, is scary, because it suggests that he does not see himself as servant of us, the people, but as the all-knowing teacher and father who has the duty to help us to change our wicked ways.


That is the attitude of patriarch and strongman messaih, not of a humble servant of the people.

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