Academic journal article Environment and Planning D: Society and Space

The Contours of Disorder: Crime Maps and Territorial Policing in South Africa

Academic journal article Environment and Planning D: Society and Space

The Contours of Disorder: Crime Maps and Territorial Policing in South Africa

Article excerpt

Abstract. Organised violence strongly shapes political boundaries. The modern state's monopoly on legitimate violence has made national borders the primary dividing line between peaceful and violent places. However, governments that are unable to achieve such a monopoly may opt for the more modest goal of moderating the distribution of violent behaviour across their jurisdiction. This paper explores how this latter approach redefines the contours of political space through a grounded ethnography of crime control strategies in Johannesburg, South Africa. In the postapartheid era, South African police and vigilantes have synthesised statistically oriented policing logics with the racial policing tactics of the past to anticipate, locate, isolate, and redistribute patterns of violent crime. In so doing, they have created forms of territorial power and violence that are neither new nor old, but undeniably postsovereign.

Keywords: crime maps, governmentality, policing, territory, sovereignty, South Africa


Over the past fifteen years crime statistics have strongly shaped the way South Africans see their place in the world. South Africans commonly use the nation's crime rate--along with HIV/AIDS infection rates and the Gini coefficient of inequality--as a 'barometer' of postapartheid transformation (Comaroff and Comarofif, 2006). In this context, the fact that South Africa's national homicide rate is the eighth highest in the world is a major cause of public concern (UNODC, 2009). (1)

Aggregate, national crime figures like these--and the international comparisons and broad generalisations they tend to invoke--provide the backdrop to an interminable and invariably anguished discussion of crime and security in South Africa. However, more spatially disaggregated crime data may be more powerfully shaping the relationship between institutionalised power and space. When South Africans are not simply reflecting on how they feel about crime levels, but practically planning what to do about the problem, they look for information that locates where the criminals are, where crime tends to happen, and what places are relatively secure. As geographic information system (GIS) technology and data become more readily available, police officers and security-conscious civilians are increasingly using 'crime maps' to determine how to best secure themselves and one another against predators. In the process they are helping to reconfigure the relationship between 'the state' and space. A good example of this dynamic may be found in the activities of a group of street patrollers I observed during an ethnographic study of the high-crime Johannesburg neighbourhood of Hillbrow:

"It was Saturday night, and I was strolling with a group of fifteen unarmed civilian volunteers who aim to reduce crime in their neighbourhood by establishing a visible and physical presence on the streets. The street patrollers' techniques are summed up by

   their rallying cry: 'stop and search each and every person'. As
   they walked, the patrollers fanned out across the sidewalk and
   subjected many people to a full body search. They were physical
   with their 'suspects', turning them around, pushing them up against
   the wall and kicking legs into a spread position.

   Rallying chants aside, the street patrollers could not possibly
   stop and search 'each and every' person they encountered. Instead,
   they usually searched more people in certain parts of the precinct
   and fewer in others. When 1 asked them about these changing levels
   of activity, they explained that they were trying to police the
   'hot spots': city blocks, street corners, collections of stalls,
   and 'bad buildings' where crime rates are higher than average.

   Every night before patrol, the group would meet up with Warrant
   Officer Moroke from the local police station. Moroke would update
   them on crime patterns, often giving them a brief list of the
   locations of recently reported crimes. … 
Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed


An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.