Crime Is a Primary Means for Many Young People to Connect with Society

Article excerpt

BYLINE: Eric Pelser

To be debating policy relevant to reducing youth crime seems a real indictment of our politics and our policy priorities. We are not, after all, evaluating dedicated and consistent action on the issue - we are debating what should be done in a country with a crippling crime rate and in which half the population is under 25.

Youth crime, indeed crime in South Africa, is a function of the development and replication over the past 30 years of a "culture of violence" among an "underclass" of negatively socialised and socially excluded youth.

The youth revolt of 1976 and the rebellion of the 1980s critically wounded the key institutions of informal authority - families and schools - and these have not been adequately healed. The children of yesterday's "lost generation" have not, as yet, been found and given relief. This can be attributed in part to a strategic misconception of the nature of crime in the country and poor strategy options post-1994.

While it is common cause that South Africa has high levels of crime and, compared to other countries with similarly high crime rates, so much violent crime, it is less commonly known that people aged 12-22 are generally victimised at twice the adult rate, and at rates even higher for violent crimes.

Given South Africa's demographics, the high rate of youth victimisation is not surprising. More surprising is research into victimisation over a 12-month period to September 2005, which indicates that many of these crimes were committed in places normally considered "safe" - the school and home.

There is research indicating that crime, and often violent crime, is a primary means for many young South Africans to connect and bond with society, to acquire "respect", "status" and sexual partners, and to demonstrate "achievement" among peers and in their communities. These are essential human desires, but the positive pathways for meeting them - mainly sound education leading to career-oriented employment - are, for too many young South Africans, out of reach.

Lacking access to legitimate pathways of achieving society's normative goals, for a significant proportion of young South Africans, crime and violence have been "normalised" mainly through consistent experience and exposure in the key institutions of their socialisation - their homes, schools and immediate environments.

Yet this is precisely the issue that South African crime reduction policy, or at least the implementation of that policy, has missed.

Analysis of the development and implementation of South Africa's National Crime Prevention Strategy, which articulated a developmental approach to crime reduction involving the "social cluster" in support of law enforcement agencies, indicates it was "... compromised at its inception in 1996 by the differing political needs of the new politicians and bureaucratic competition in the newly-created Department of Safety and Security", and rapidly became more "a statement of vision than a strategy".

It may be argued that the only parts of the strategy that were implemented were those concerned with improving the criminal justice system - specifically, the Business Against Crime-supported Integrated Justice System programme.

It is also clear that the 1998 White Paper on Safety and Security, which set the policy framework for an "inter-locking" approach to law enforcement and "social crime prevention" was, after its Cabinet approval, almost wholly ignored in favour of a high-density and tough policing and sentencing approach.

The main reason for this is the continuous rhetoric associated with the supposedly tough approach adopted by the police after the 1999 elections - a rhetoric that consistently puts the police at the centre of "a war against crime".

Through the ritualised release of police crime statistics, which attempt to show that crime has "stabilised", and, more sensationally, by the vacuous statements of public figures, this rhetoric positions the police as the primary crime reduction agency. …