‘Inxeba lenlitziyo’ – an isiXhosa term meaning ‘wound of the heart’ – perfectly describes what lies behind violence in South Africa, and why efforts to ‘fight crime’ cannot deliver the expected returns in safety and security. Between 2010 and 2015, I interviewed men convicted of violent crimes and who were serving long sentences in maximum-security prisons. The men came from all nine provinces of South Africa. The youngest was 23 and the oldest 56.
They had been convicted of crimes ranging from murder and rape to vehicle hijacking, home invasions and armed robbery. Collectively they were sentenced to over 850 years in prison. If they were to serve only one-fifth of their sentences (which is most likely to be the case), it would cost the state more than R77 million (at a conservative R250 per day, per inmate). Conducted in partnership with the Department of Correctional Services, the research sought to find out why some men repeatedly return to prison; and what the department could do to stop this cycle. But the research also hoped find out why South Africa is so violent.
I met Velabahleke (not his real name – meaning ‘amuser’ in Zulu) in Mangaung Correction Facility, near Bloemfontein. He was delightfully entertaining with a light, easy charm and a quick wit. By the time I met him, he’d already been in prison for many years and his hard life was etched into his face – making him appear much older than his 40 years. He was serving a 51-year sentence for murder, aggravated robbery, intimidation and possession of a firearm.
Velabahleke was born in Thokoza in 1973. His parents both worked, and had very little time to spend with the 10 children; Velabahleke, his siblings and cousins. The family was enterprising. His mother fried fish that she and the children would sell in taverns in the evening, while the children sold picture frames, peanuts and ice cream at the soccer stadium over the weekends. For most of the time, there were no adults who could watch over the children – they simply could not afford the time.
Velabahleke went to school when he was six, but soon starting staying away because it was more fun to hang out at the local mall and earn a few cents pushing trollies for customers. No one noticed for three years, when the school finally contacted his parents to report his truancy.
Velabahleke and a cousin were sent to live with an aunt in KwaZulu-Natal, where there was less to entertain them. For a while he stayed in school, but before long his aunt became dissatisfied with the money his parents could send, and Velabahleke was sent back to Thokoza. For a while he went back to school, but by the time he turned 10, things started going wrong at home and at school. His parents’ relationship was breaking down – and his father would beat his mother, sometimes viciously.
Their father would also wait until the children were asleep and then discipline them for things they had done wrong during the day – pulling them out of bed and beating them with a sjambok. The children started sleeping in toilets or broken-down cars to hide from their father. One day, Velabahleke arrived at school after skipping classes for a few days. He was called into the headmaster’s office to find all the teachers sitting around the room. The teachers took turns to beat the little boy with pipes until, he said, he could no longer feel a thing. This was the end of his school career: unsurprisingly, Velabahleke would never return.
For a while he showed incredible ingenuity and entrepreneurial potential, converting a bicycle so that he could use it to sell ice cream in the streets. But when he found a gun at a neighbour’s house and took it for himself, his life changed drastically.
He no longer had to rely on earning small change from trading – but could significantly increase his earnings through robbery. Not only was this a shift from petty crime – it was also a shift into a fast-paced, high-risk, adrenaline-filled lifestyle. The money he earned would be spent as quickly as it was accumulated – on drinking with his friends, expensive clothes and maintaining a lifestyle that brought him status in the eyes of his peers.
Velabahleke was arrested for the first time when he was 16, after a beer-hall brawl. He had stabbed a young man in the neck with a broken bottle, killing him. He was arrested and held for a while, but released again without having had a trial. He didn’t know why.
A few years later he was arrested again – for avenging his brother, who had been badly beaten. He tracked down the man who had hurt his brother and beat him to death with bricks. This time his case made it to court, but claiming self defence, he received a suspended sentence.
By the time political violence began to abate in the late 1990s, Velabahleke was like a soldier conditioned to a war zone. He was traumatised, alienated from other members of his community who feared him, and trapped in a lifestyle that was hard to leave. Velabahleke’s ‘luck’ ran out, when he accidentally shot and killed yet another man. This time, his arrest led to a conviction and imprisonment.
This story is not unlike the others I heard. Not all the men had experienced or participated in collective violence; but violence in the home, violence meted out by teachers and violence experienced in the criminal justice system were constant themes.
Overall, the persistent effect of exposure to violence – structural and physical – ultimately establishes cycles that are very difficult to break. These cycles certainly cannot be broken by the criminal justice system, which most often compounds the problem.
This year, the South African budget allocated R87.2 billion to policing and another R41.7 billion for courts and prisons. In a forthcoming book titled A citizen's guide to crime trends in South Africa, Mark Shaw and Anine Kriegler from the University of Cape Town say this means that 10c in every rand of government spending is allocated to fighting the ‘war on crime’ through the criminal justice system.
Add to that the R60 billion that Shaw and Kriegler report to have been spent by businesses and middle class citizens on private security. The lion’s share of this money is spent on the nearly 750 000 people who make the criminal justice system work, or who patrol the streets: 194 000 staff in the South African Police Service, 487 000 private security offices, 40 000 prison officials and 22 000 staff serving the courts.
There is a veritable army of people involved in responding to crime – but only after it has happened. Does it not make more sense to spend that money on increasing the safety net for families like Velabahleke’s, and overcoming the social injustice that cements inequality and deepens the wounds of the heart.
Some of this is already happening; such as improving public transport so that people can spend less time getting to work. Much more needs to be done, however: providing workplace childcare facilities; making sure parents can take leave to look after children after they are born; providing excellent crèches and after-care facilities for children like Velabahleke and making sure teachers know how to handle difficult children without beating them.
Such investments are likely to deliver a much more certain return in safety and the wellbeing of all South Africans.