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The True Cost of our Crime

This is not an easy post for me to write. Why? Because I am so proudly South African that I could be used as a one-woman-ad-campaign for our country. But, I have come to a shocking realisation this week and it saddens me to the point of public declaration.

We have a serious crime issue in South Africa. I know there are criminals everywhere; the level of violence in South Africa is one of the highest, (if not the highest?) crime rates in the world. Its sick and sad to read the papers or watch the news and see how we, as a people, disrespect on another. And I mean disrespect because I believe all crime stems from lack of education and respect for human life and dignity.

We are not alone in the fact that there is crime on our streets and in our homes. You do hear of rape and murder and robberies in other countries. I have witnessed it in some of the countries I have travelled to and know people who have been victims of it too. South Africa is also not alone in the fact that we have alarms in our homes, a police presence wherever possible and security companies on every street corner. I don’t know what the solution is, because like I said, it boils down to a lot more than poverty, which is what the government try to blame it on. People in our country, I assume, who commit crime, are not only poor and hungry and angry, they are also completely and blatantly ignoring the basic human rights of their victims. Some of the biggest criminals are well-fed and greedy and working in the governmental offices. Crime is something deeply entrenched in a culture and one that needs a lot more than a few million Rand thrown at the problem. In many countries, the criminals are seen as reprobates and the law is tough on even the slightest crime. In South Africa, sadly, it is often excused and in some circles, applauded.

Not to excuse it, but the last I heard, the average Zulu person’s life expectancy in South Africa is between thirty-five and forty years. I'm ‘picking on’ them because they’re the largest population group in our country and they are, if statistics are to be believed, dying young. This is due to having the highest HIV/AIDs infection rate, as well the amount of poverty ‘forcing’ them to live lives of crime thus exposing them to greater risk of dying through violence. Again, it is simple mathematics, more Zulus=bigger chunk of the statistics.

If your life was going to end before or on your fortieth birthday, I guess you would live a little differently too. Why get married? Why worry about building a successful career? Why care about educating children? Why care about going to jail? It’s a sad state of affairs. In fact, in jail you get a warm bed (great alternative to homelessness or sharing a one-roomed hut with an entire family,) you also get showers and toilets, (again, a great alternative to no running water near your home,) and many prisons offer free education, internet access and satellite television. The life of crime certainly seems to pay.

If we expand this idea a little further; the government has spent a FORTUNE educating our country about HIV/AIDs and yet the fastest growing statistic for contracting the virus is my age group (thirty to forty year olds) – post-Apartheid (so, the past regime’s political system can't be blamed,) with (relatively) equal opportunity to education (so, the past regime’s education system can't be blamed,) Internet-accessed (so, lack of access to information can't be blamed,) young and wealth-driven. Ipso facto, we should all know and do better. But we don’t – and why should you care about how you die, if you are almost certain to die one way or another anyway. But I digress.

The cause of our crime culture is not really my area of expertise nor interest. The fact that there is a criminal undercurrent to every day in South Africa is also not really what I wanted to highlight. The fact that, as South Africans, even the noblest of us are more inclined to ‘bend’ the law than many other respectable citizens would ever dare to, is also aside the point, albeit a sad fact. And before you climb on a high horse and say, “Not me!” ask if you have ever driven over the speed limit, talked on a cell-phone while behind the wheel, lied about your income to avoid higher taxation, tried to bribe a policeman, driven above the speed limit, gone to work hung-over or even drunk… there are numerous countries where people simply don’t do these things because they are against the law. Here, you congratulate a friend for paying less tax and shake hands with a mate who successfully bribes himself out of a speeding ticket. Here, the minute corruption charges start being brought to members of our government, the guilty ones only divert attention from themselves by pointing to the more guilty ones. 

Again, there are countries in the world where this is not the norm. Shocking. I know.

What I have been stunned into realising this week, while I am on a vacation to an island resort, is how much time we, as South Africans, spend obsessing about safety and security. Perhaps the crimes we obsess about aren’t murder or rape, but they take our lives from us minute by minute none the less. Work out how many minutes you spend alarming and locking up a home, for example. Then multiply that by three hundred and sixty five days. And in most homes, this happens more than once a day. Then tally up the hours of sleep you have lost due to false alarms, sounding at inopportune times during the night. Of course we also need to include the fact that even though a house is alarmed and locked up, often we worry about the place when we’re not there; sometimes needing to deal with a security company while away from home, over false alarms or horrible real alarms.

This is not a singularly-South-African experience, because I have had to do similar things in the UK and France. I'm sure the States and Australia also have these little irritations. But here, on vacation island, I simply close a door and walk away. When will I return? Oh, I don’t know. Later? Yes, I have a safe in my room, but I have left it open twice and almost always forget to put something of value inside of it before leaving my room. I'm pretty sure the reason the safe is in the room at all is because so many paranoid tourists come to visit. It’s a different mindset and one that I have, for the first time in my life, found extremely liberating. It’s not reality, I know, but surely it should be?

Murder and rape and violence against our fellow man are deplorable in any country or circumstance. The rate of violence and the acceptance of lawlessness in South Africa is something that should sadden and concern all of us. For so many, it has been a driving force to make them emigrate to foreign lands. There is a huge argument to be made that the money spend securing our homes and businesses should be a tax exemption because it means that the government is not doing enough to protect us. It would be very nice to get some money back from the Receiver of Revenue for the countless Rands we spend on alarms and security and pepper spray and all of that. But what I wish we could get back, aside from the countless lives we have lost or been ruined by this violence, is the time these criminals steal from us, by occupying so much of our day-today existence with preventative measures. 

But there’s even more to this account: what about the cost of all the sleep we’ve lost due to worry over our family and possessions? What about the simple fact that when you’re worrying about the dangers associated with such a high crime rate, you run with pepper spray in your hand, you don’t greet strangers and you call the security company if a car gets lost in your road and circles the block more than once? It makes us not nice people to the people around us; which probably adds to the fear and mistrust.  

For someone like me, the fact that this country, (my favourite place on Earth,) and the people who live here, (my favourite people alive,) is tainted by the cycle of suspicion and unfriendliness is really the greatest cost of the criminal undercurrent. It makes us slaves of suspicion and fear, and more than anything else, a little less great than we really can be. A Great Song About being Afraid


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