The American novelist and correspondent Allen Drury once described his impression of South Africa in the 1960s as “a very strange society.” Twenty years after apartheid I find myself agreeing with him.
On Sept. 24 we celebrated Heritage Day, in which we try to embrace the unity in the diversity of the African, European and Asian backgrounds and cultures that make up this country. Many South Africans talk of Ubuntu, our national understanding of human-ness, as a philosophy: a person is a person because of other people. My identity is found in community. Reduced to a one-liner: “I am because we are.” Ubuntu is important to the founding myth of the new South African nation because it contributes to the narrative of freedom—the long and difficult journey from segregation, apartheid and state violence to democracy and a recognition of common humanity.
Ubuntu permeates our national way of proceeding, underpinning the restorative as opposed to retributive justice approach of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, the emphasis on human rights in the 1997 South African Constitution and the emphasis on dialogue in dispute resolution. Procedurally, it stresses consultation, modeled on the African traditional lekgotla: the meeting of stakeholders where positions are debated and an attempt is made at consensus.
But.... The recently released South African crime statistics for April 2012 to March 2013 are worrying. Despite a slight decrease in some categories of robbery (car theft, bank robbery and cash-in-transit heists) as well as arson and damage to property, violent crimes increased significantly.
During this period murder increased by 4.2 percent: 16,259 people died, on average 45 per day, with a murder rate of 31.3 per 100,000 people—more than four times the global average. Sexual offenses increased by 2.9 percent, though most would observe that this is an unreliable statistic since a relatively small proportion of these offenses are reported. Robbery with violence or threat of violence, most notably street muggings, increased.
We may argue about the reasons for such violence, citing the terrible income gap between the richest and poorest in our land, endemic poverty and the lack of jobs particularly for most school-leavers (the guesstimate for unemployment among young people is 50 percent and higher). We may cite the legacy of inequality under apartheid and the wide perception from the past of the gangster as a kind of social outlaw who bucked the system, found in African literature as far back as the 1950s.
But.... Once again, these arguments presuppose more than they explain. Poor people are not automatically criminals. This is a profoundly unfair Victorian notion of the poor as “the criminal classes” that, in its patronizing form, reduces moral agents to objects of pity and control. Closer reading of the crime statistics also shows us that most victims of violent crime are the poor themselves, precisely because they are the most vulnerable. Though crime is not a preserve of the poor—almost every South African I know, across the race and class spectrum, knows someone who has been murdered or the victim of violence—most crimes occur in poor areas.
A more useful way to analyze the contradiction between Ubuntu and violence is to examine South Africa as a culture of resentment. Resentment takes on many forms. There is a widespread attitude of entitlement. The rich feel entitled to their wealth and to show it off by conspicuous consumption in ways ranging from the absurd to the obscene. The poor feel entitled to an immediate share in the material benefits of liberation. There is a commonly held view that now that apartheid is gone, government will meet all material needs.
In contrast to the myth of harmony presented by Ubuntu, there is the widespread belief in witchcraft, particularly in black urban communities and rural areas. When a sibling or relative does well and I do not, it is not the result of better education, hard work or dumb luck. It is clear that he or she has powerful muti, magic power, and this is at my expense. Resentment grows and with it hostility to others, passive and sometimes active aggression.
This is the other founding myth of modern South Africa. Which myth, Ubuntu or Resentment/Entitlement, is dominant in South Africa will ultimately determine our heritage and the legacy to humanity of South Africa’s struggle for democracy.