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Fear and loathing of the rich infringe on South Africans’ civil liberties

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Fear and loathing of the rich infringe on South Africans’ civil liberties

In this video clip, Poppie Mphuthing, Researcher in the Crime, Justice and Politics Programme at the Institute for Security Studies, speaks to Polity's Amy Witherden on how South African citizens seem to have gone too far in exercising their right to safety and security by infringing other people's rights to freedom. Camerawork: Darlene Creamer and Shane Williams; Editing: Darlene Creamer (07/07/2009).

7th July 2009

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In this video clip, Poppie Mphuthing, Researcher in the Crime, Justice and Politics Programme at the Institute for Security Studies, speaks to Polity's Amy Witherden on how South African citizens seem to have gone too far in exercising their right to safety and security by infringing other people's rights to freedom.

Below is the original opinion piece on which this discussion was based.

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Perhaps the single most important concern of South Africa's rich classes is crime. While 2007/08 crime statistics indicated the crime rate decreased for violent contact crimes such as murder (by 4,7%), rape (8,8%) and aggravated robbery (7,4%), still the threat of these crimes looms large and imposing in the national psyche.

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While empirical evidence shows that in real terms crime trends have decreased in recent years, the 2007 ISS Victims Of Crime Survey shows that perceptions of crime are that crime is getting worse. Part of this perception relates to the fact that South Africa's crime rate remains significantly higher than internationally acceptable levels. The fear of becoming a cold statistic of violent contact crime has prompted some South Africans with material surplus to impose self-exile, by emigrating to the ‘safer' rich world.

A 2008 Synovate survey found that 20% of South Africans planned to emigrate. Top destinations are the USA, the UK, Australia and New Zealand. In 2008 The Economist reported that 1.4 million South Africans live in the UK alone. For 55% of respondents in the Synovate survey the ‘push factor' was violence, crime and corruption.

For those who remain behind, the past decade has seen trends of security estates and townhouse complexes whose unique selling point that propels estate agencies' marketing drives is security and an unwritten promise of a safer existence. Residential and commercial security complexes have become all the rage. For many they have become a lifestyle choice.

A parallel trend that has emerged is the trend towards enclosed neighbourhoods. Both models indicate that the South African psyche is a fearful one, while demonstrating that those with the luxury of an extra few Rands can, in principle at least, buy their safety. It is clear that a post-apartheid, demilitarised South Africa that embodies freedom of speech and movement for all has not filled the void of providing safety and security for all who live in it.

The fortification of the urban cityscape in essence curtails these guaranteed freedoms. While residential security complexes may be a lifestyle choice, enclosed neighbourhoods that operate under similar principles have a nuance of difference that undermines their very existence. While it is the right of individuals to protect themselves and their property, it seems unreasonable that similar rights have been so far extended as to advocate the privatisation of public space.

While these observations have been shared in the public sphere for at least the last decade, it seems they have not been internalised, as yet another "Security Village" in Pretoria East has been created in the last couple of weeks, after a 7-year battle with the municipality. Despite arguments that public space belongs to all South Africans, that enclosed neighbourhoods isolate and exclude and have an adverse effect on the functioning of the urban cityscape, suburban neighbourhoods are still being enclosed.

The privatisation of public space relates to the trends of enclosing neighbourhoods, by fencing off roads and erecting boom controls. With these controls follows regulation, a close monitoring of comings and goings and an unspoken right by the boom controllers to grant and deny access. Many of these enclosed neighbourhoods require domestic staff (still mostly poor and black) to carry customised ID passes. This protocol is, to some extent, reminiscent of the influx control and pass laws of the Urban Areas and Group Areas Acts (and others) of the 1950s. And yet in a 21st Century, free and democratic South Africa, influx control has become a de facto way of life in metropolitan suburbia.

One of the ironies of a post-apartheid South Africa is that a key joint objective in achieving majority rule was to ensure that all South Africans have freedom of speech, association and movement for all citizens. These principles are clearly contradicted with the privatisation of public space that exist mainly in South Africa's metropolitan areas.

Fear and loathing permeates these enclosures as the rings of security and protection become evermore layered. The inner sanctum of the home is protected by the ring of burglar bars, security gates, alarms and guard dogs. This is the first layer of defence. The second layer is the inner ring of high walls and electric fencing. And finally the third layer of defence is the perimeter fencing and the guarded boom control of the enclosed neighbourhood. It becomes clear that a fine line exists between security measures and self-imprisonment.

While the superstructure of the apartheid machinery may have been dismantled, the same cannot be said about attitudes, perceptions and interactions in society. In apartheid characterisation, affluent white suburbs characterise the ‘other' as poor and black. As many ‘Black Diamonds' have moved into the formerly white suburbs, post-apartheid sensibilities seems to permit the black aesthetic, but certainly not the ‘poor' aesthetic.

In this new dispensation can anyone, rich, poor and those in between, all honestly say, "I live in a free South Africa"?

 

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