South Africans generally seem to think that harsher punishment, starting with the refusal of bail for accused and a return of the death penalty, will curb the country’s high rate of violent crime, especially against women and children. Unfortunately, according to experts, there is very little the police or the criminal justice system can do to prevent rape and gender-based violence.
The violent death of Reeva Steenkamp, the girlfriend of sports hero Oscar Pistorius, following only two weeks after the brutal gang rape and murder of Anene Booysen in Bredasdorp, will almost certainly give rise to a clamour of questions about South Africans’ ‘moral decay’ and apparent penchant for violence. “It will also lead to calls for harsher punishment for rapists and the perpetrators of gender-based violence,” writes the Institute for Security Studies (ISS) in an article published last week.
Illustrating South Africans' demand for revenge via harsher punishment, rather than justice, is the headline “Oscar Pistorius can rot in hell” at the time of his being granted bail. Symptomatic of the same tendency are the almost inevitable demonstrations demanding the refusal of bail whenever accused in such cases first appear in court. Often they have to remain in custody for their own safety.
While violence against women and children has dominated news headlines in recent weeks, the South African propensity toward violence to deal with problems, frustration and conflicts of interest is much wider. Illustrating a deeper problem must include the so-called Marikana incident last year, regular violence accompanying labour action, and service delivery protests.
Politically inspired murders have also become a regular feature of the South African social landscape. Only last week the African National Congress’ deputy chairperson in the North West province and provincial minister of co-operative governance and traditional affairs, China Dodovu, became the eighth person to be arrested in connection with the murder of Oubuti Chika, regional secretary of the party’s Kenneth Kaunda region.
Analysing the phenomenon of gender violence in South Africa, the ISS writes: “... when looking for solutions, we tend to fall back on the familiar calls for the police to do more. “President Jacob Zuma already announced during his State of the Nation Address last week that crimes against women and children would be prioritised by the criminal justice system. Unfortunately, however, there is very little the police or the criminal justice system can do to prevent rape and gender-based violence.
“What we know about rape and violence between men and women in intimate relationships paints a depressing picture. But understanding the problem does lead to insight into what we need to do to fix it.”
Referring to research done by the Medical Research Council (MRC), the institute concludes that if “women are most at risk of being raped or murdered by people they either know by sight, or have an intimate relationship with, it means that looking to the police or the criminal justice system for solutions is not going to get us very far. By the time the police arrive or a case comes before the court, it is already too late. It is also simply not feasible to arrest and prosecute up to a third of all South African males.”
The article argues that the difficult truth is that there is no quick fix. “No politician can change this, nor can any political party – though they may promise to do so in the hope that it will secure your vote in the next election. Politicians are as much part of the solution as they are part of the problem. So is the media, and so are you.”
It concludes that “politicians need to model the kinds of attitudes toward gender and violence that we wish to see throughout society. Politicians who call for more policing and harsher punishment in response to violence reinforce the idea that violence is a solution to social problems.”
It is also argued that the solution lies in the way society responds to violence “at home, between children, on television and at school. We need children not to see violence at home or at school and provide support to those who do.”
A change of attitude across all spectrums of society is needed, and the article concludes: “Changing the high rate of violence and rape starts with how we care for and protect children and requires the involvement of everyone: parents, teachers, politicians, nurses, doctors, social workers and psychologists.
“Even bus and taxi drivers need to watch that bullying does not take place on the bus on the way to school and back home; and need to have somewhere to report if it does. We need to start changing our systems from focusing on how to punish crime, to preventing it from happening.”