Providing fertile ground for increasing criminality is the culture we have allowed, which equates lawlessness with democracy, writes Mike Siluma
We have, for the umpteenth time, another orgy of looting and wanton violence against purported foreigners and their property.
And predictably, we all feign surprise and outrage.
But the events of the past week or so, deservedly condemned internationally, simply represent our country’s chickens coming home to roost.
The root cause of the violence is not so much the fact that we have African migrants in our midst.
Nor is it in the main the hunger of the poor.
These are relevant but not causal factors.
On the contrary, the elephant in the room is the South African state itself, coupled with a permissive national culture of explaining away pretty much any transgression of the law.
This is a state that is proving to be too squeamish to perform one of its primary duties in society – the maintenance of law and order, irrespective of whether it is the foreigner or the local committing a crime.
We just have to look at the recent scenes in the Johannesburg CBD, where, confronted by missile-throwing traders, police had to abandon a raid for counterfeit goods.
On that occasion, the police were lauded in some quarters for presumably acting judiciously by abandoning the operation.
Those applauding included no less a personage than the police minister, General Bheki Cele, himself.
What’s probably closer to the truth is that, in such situations, our police are spooked by the ghost of Marikana.
Also at the back of their minds would have been our liberal Constitution, which could, in a flash, turn officers into criminals for trying to do their job.
Compounding the situation of police is that they are often ill-prepared and poorly trained in many aspects of policing, which, in turn, diminishes the chances of criminals being brought to book for their wrongdoing.
In this world without consequences, is it any wonder, then, that criminals in our society have been emboldened, and that respect for the law and authority has continued to diminish?
Apart from the mobs attacking migrants and looting shops, other law breakers include the thugs who burn freight trucks on the N3, purportedly in support of demands to halt the employment of foreign truck drivers.
Then there are the faceless arsonists who burn commuter trains when they run late, or for some other nefarious purpose; alongside the so-called construction mafia, which has disrupted projects running into billions of rands around the country.
We can add to this long and growing list illegal land invaders and protesters of all hues whose stock in trade is the destruction of public property, including schools, clinics and road infrastructure.
The question to be answered by the state is: How many of the perpetrators of these crimes have been brought to book?
Providing fertile ground for increasing criminality is the culture we have allowed to take root in our country, which, perversely, equates lawlessness with democracy.
Violence, in which lives are endangered and property is destroyed, has become intrinsic to public protest in South Africa.
It is characterised, wrongly, as the exercise of the democratic right of free expression.
That culture implores us to seek to negotiate about, and understand, everything – including acts of criminality.
Thus, having declared that the perpetrators of last week’s violence in Johannesburg came from the Cleveland and Denver hostels, Cele did a very South African thing: instead of smoking out the culprits, he promised an imbizo to be held at the weekend.
Since when has the enforcement of the law and the punishment of criminals been negotiable?
We are led to believe that attacks on foreigners are the result of poverty and hunger among the perpetrators.
But what kind of hunger is this that leads people to loot liquor stores and cart off television sets and other non-food items?
We even allowed ourselves to be sidetracked into a sterile, if phony, semantic argument about the cause of the violence – whether it was criminal or xenophobic.
The point is that if the South African state properly did its job of managing immigration, eliminating corruption at home affairs and firmly dealing with all lawlessness, that debate would be superfluous.
In our denialism, we may call the various incidents of lawbreaking a manifestation of the democratic right to protest, but it is in reality the representation of creeping anarchy, which will eventually overflow from the townships and the inner cities, putting paid to the serenity of the tree-lined streets of suburbia.
As South Africans we have allowed ourselves to buy into the notion that we are somehow special – with the so-called best Constitution in the world.
But then, what good is “the best Constitution in the world” when your government is incapable of or unwilling to enforce it to protect life and property?
Looking abroad, our government’s inability to get on top of the crime problem now threatens to poison our relationships with other African countries, as the responses from Nigeria and Zambia, among other governments, have shown.
It also does not bode well for our participation in the African Continental Free Trade Area agreement, which we recently joined, and which seeks to promote economic co-operation among African countries.
But unless our government musters courage, and deals with all lawlessness with a firm hand, the violence will recur, as it has done since 1994.
Siluma is a veteran journalist and hosts Karibu on Kaya FM 95.9
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