Compassionate approach needed to end cycles of violence
Strengthening the criminal justice system has not resulted in lower levels of violent crime
By now all news-watching South Africans know that the newly released police crime statistics confirm our shared perception that violent crime is on the rise. Many forms of violent crimes increased in the past financial year.
The formula for solving violent crime is an equation the world has been working on for decades. We have best-practice standards, international research and even SA evidence on what works and what doesn’t.
Reducing violent crime does require improved trust in the police, well-trained and managed detectives, and respect for the rule of law. It requires police be in the right places at the right times, such as in areas where there are high levels of murder over weekends. This takes good management, good leadership, accurate crime analysis and fixing corruption within the ranks of the SA Police Service. All of which are possible.
The affect of crime reduction on the economy is obvious. But solving violence will take a different approach.
It cannot be solved with well-trained police officers, a sharp and well-resourced intelligence community, or police visibility alone. Violence is not reduced by only improving security. Nor through more vigilant street WhatsApp groups, or tougher neighbourhood watch programmes, and especially not with longer prison sentences. We already have harsh sentencing policies, especially for violent crimes, that have been in place since the late 1990s. They have not had any effect.
Violence is, at its root, a symptom of the trauma carried by our society for generations; the trauma of broken families, racism, dislocation and loss that is the legacy of apartheid, and endures. It is worsened by unemployment, domestic violence, inequality and poverty. It is fuelled by dangerous expressions of masculinity, and a state many experience as uncaring and unfair.
With each year that violence remains so prevalent in our country the number of South Africans who have experienced and witnessed violence increases, and so does the extent of national trauma.
A study by the Centre of Excellence in Human Development at Wits University, which tracked children from birth to 20, showed that 99% of children in the greater Johannesburg-Soweto area had experienced violence before they turned 18. Eighty percent of primary schoolchildren and 90% of high schoolchildren had experienced violence. They were threatened or beaten at home, at school or in their neighbourhood, often by someone who was meant to take care of them.
The effect of this is profound. It is difficult to treat trauma when it affects so many of us, not only in one-off incidents but continuously. When using and experiencing violence is normalised in children’s lives they are more likely to use it. Children mimic experiences at home when they are at school, so violence at home leads to violence on the playground, which spills out into the streets and broader society.
In the face of the crime statistics and high-profile cases of terrible violence our society is angry, and afraid. naturally we seek justice and retribution.
It is hard for the voices that call for more caring, stronger support for parents and greater protection of children to be heard. And yet our failure to invest in strengthening families (whatever their form), ensuring that children are safe on their way to and from school, and at school, and our failure to provide sufficient support for new mothers and infants, among others, is what has got us to this point and will keep us here unless we focus on addressing them.
Research shows that children who witness violence are affected as much as those who experience it themselves. Seeing your father beat your mother is as harmful to your development — your understanding of conflict and emotions and relationships — as one of your parents hitting you. And watching the police violently arrest suspects, chase down people from other countries and shoot rubber bullets at protesters, undermines our trust in the police and the state, if that is what we see from when we are young.
SA is reaping the consequences of unchecked child abuse and neglect. The way we responded to children who experienced violence, neglect and abuse in 2008 determined the level of violence we are experiencing today; and so today’s actions will determine the society we live in a generation on. Violent offenders in jail are often from dysfunctional or broken families. This does not absolve them of blame but points to the need for a more considered response to their crimes, and the problem of violence as a whole.
Within the borders of Sandton, Johannesburg’s financial hub, there is a small NGO that provides exactly the sort of support and care that is needed for parents and children in Alexandra. Ububele staff work with parents to help them form healthy relationships with their children, something that is difficult in the face of extreme adversity. They help parents deal with their own trauma and work to break the cycles of violence that trap generations.
In the small township of Touwsranten in the southern Cape, the Seven Passes Initiative has made progress in reducing youth violence, domestic violence, corporal punishment, school dropout and unemployment through a long-term intervention that provides a safe and nurturing place for children after school, visits and supports mothers when they are pregnant and after their babies are born, and provides positive parenting programmes that offer parents techniques to discipline their children nonviolently.
Across the county there are programmes and interventions, many run by NGOs, many supported by the government, that are doing the long, slow work of building healthy communities. But, they are seldom visible, often struggling for survival because they rely on uncertain sources of funding and are never spoken about with the passion we see when people call for the death sentence.
There are teachers, researchers, social workers and many committed government officials who are working hard to address trauma and violence, but they too are often invisible and unsupported. There are volunteers working alongside police to provide counselling to victims of violence.
And there are police officers, such as Maj-Gen Oswald Reddy, cluster commander of Eden, who understand that the police can help break cycles of violence. His team is working with the Institute for Security Studies (ISS) and others to catalyse after school programmes in communities affected by high levels of youth violence and introduce evidence-based police practices. This includes working to improve the police’s response to domestic violence, drug and alcohol abuse.
We need more of this. To believe that we can solve decades of violence only by strengthening the criminal justice system is to hand the crisis on to each passing generation. It is not only the responsibility of politicians and government to solve this problem, it is the responsibility of every South African.
Ultimately our country’s economy and development is dependent on us ending the intergenerational cycles of violence and trauma, because only in this way will we improve educational outcomes, workplace performance and reduce the cost of violence to the health system.
• Dr Gould, a senior research fellow at the justice and crime prevention programme of the ISS and founding member of the SA Violence Prevention Forum, is author of Beaten Bad, a study of incarcerated violent offenders