ELEVEN YEARS AGO, MY FIRST YEAR LIVING IN NEW York, I sat on the roof of International House on the edge of Harlem, with hundreds of other students, raucously celebrating as elections in South Africa, half a world away, finished off the apartheid regime and brought Nelson Mandela's African National Congress to power. Drinking beers and singing freedom songs, none of us doubted that the election signified a historic event as transformative as the razing of the Berlin Wall.
Back then, New York, a city long plagued by high crime rates, drugs, and vicious gangs, was also undergoing a transformation, becoming a place of low crime and urban revival. But it was doing so partly through fairly brutal policing strategies that exacerbated racial divides. Police began systematic crackdowns on "lifestyle" crimes they had previously ignored--such as graffiti, street hustles, and minor drug use--on the theory that this would signal a restoration of public order. Meanwhile, in addition to these new coercive, "zero tolerance" tactics, the city was also embracing innovative crime-prevention methods such as an increased cooperation between police and community representatives, and the use of computerized statistical data (COMPSTAT), first pioneered by then-Transit Police Chief Jack Maple, to identify crime hot spots and place police patrols accordingly.
Criminologists are still debating the relative effects of get-tough policing and prosecution, computer-assisted techniques, and general societal changes, including a leveling off of crack usage and the end of crack-distribution turf wars, the demographic decline in the number of young men on the streets, and the booming economy of the 1990s, which lowered unemployment and also brought more money for drug rehabilitation and neighborhood-regeneration projects. But there is no debating the fact that New York City" became a safer place.
Today, meanwhile, South Africa is a year into its second decade of democratic rule. It is, in many ways, one of the most uplifting of recent international stories. Yet, tragically, many of the same crime issues that plagued New York are playing out on a far more devastating scale across South Africa, a land of more than 745,645 miles and more than 40 million people. With about 25,000 murders per year and tens of thousands more attempted murders, post-apartheid South Africa has murder rates only briefly approached in America during the worst years in the most run-down urban ghettos. An entire country lives, day in and day out, with the siege mentality that residents of the South Bronx, Anacostia, Compton, and Southside Chicago experienced during the late 1980s.
"There was a time we criminologists would have done the lefty thing and said it's a moral panic," says University of Cape Town criminology professor Elrena van der Spuy. "But, today, where does the panic end and reality begin? Dinner-table conversation in this country suggests a country at war with itself."
Lately, many of the policing strategies used to curtail crime in the Big Apple have been hawked to civic and business leaders in Cape Town and Johannesburg, first by former New York City Police Commissioner William Bratton and then by ex-Mayor Rudy Giuliani. Police threes have created specialized rapid reaction forces somewhat akin to the SWAT-team policing expanded in America during the 1990s. At times, the police have tried saturating high-crime neighborhoods. In central Cape Town, now a phenomenally dangerous city, a public-private law-enforcement partnership has worked to create zones of safety aggressively patrolled by police and private security, companies, comprehensively covered by surveillance cameras.
More than 187,000 sentenced prisoners and inmates awaiting trial are now behind bars in South Africa. Between 1996 and 2004, according to the latest report by, the Office of the Inspecting Judge, the number of inmates serving life sentences almost doubled and the number serving more than 10 years nearly quadrupled. …