On Friday 15 January South Africa's premier independent free-to-air channel, e.tv, aired footage of two self-identified criminals telling of their plans to commit armed robbery during the 2010 FIFA World Cup which the country is hosting in June. The story was repeated throughout the day on both e.tv and the station's sister news channel, e-News.
Airwaves have been aflutter ever since, depicting a tug of war between the South African Police Service (SAPS) and the country's media bodies. The SAPS wants the alleged criminals arrested on charges of intimidation while members of the media community fight for the right to protect the anonymity of their sources. Both sides have made strong arguments for their respective cases, the SAPS National Commissioner going so far as to call e.tv "crime kissers" and subpoenaing e.tv news editor Ben Said and reporter Mpho Lakaje. The SAPS has also emphasized that the alleged criminals' contraventions of the Intimidation Act could warrant a 25 year prison sentence. The police then announced that they had arrested one of the men who had appeared on e.tv and that a second arrest was imminent.
Specific human tragedy as a result of the story occurred last Tuesday when Lucky Phungula, the man who e.tv claims brought Lakaje together with the two unidentified ‘criminals', committed suicide after poisoning himself. The Hawks publicly stated that they were of the opinion that Phungula was one of the men interviewed and that they were set on proving this.
Through an interview with Phungula's daughter, the Star newspaper suggested that the suicide was as a result of the personal pressure he was feeling in relation to his role in the e.tv story. It was described how the popular DJ had said goodbye to his 16-year-old, told her he loved her, and handed her a bag full of letters the two had been writing to one another since she was in primary school. In a suicide note he reiterated his love for her.
Directly below this article, the Star printed an unrelated story describing how a mother in rural Mpumalanga who, last Sunday, was forced to participate in a mob stoning and killing of her son, Oupa Ngomane. The community alleged that Ngomane had been involved in the murder of another villager.
On the surface the two articles speak to entirely different aspects of South African crime and violence. Together though, they remind us of the unacknowledged shadow that lingers behind the country's national discourse on crime and justice.
In both stories the idea of the ‘criminal' and his or her due is central: The SAPS want to have access to the men seen on e.tv so that they can prove their crime, label them ‘criminal' and incarcerate them for threats against the nation (and prove Phungula's culpability). In Mpumalanga the community automatically cast the labels of ‘criminal' and ‘murderer' on a young man and meted out what they presumably felt to be a just punishment, in this case death. But in a rare coincidence for South African media, both articles give readers a glimpse of the humanity of these ‘criminal' actors. Whether or not Phungula was one of the self-confessed criminals, he was at least their acquaintance, possibly even a friend. He was also a man of deep familial love, a sentimentalist and a letter writer. He was a man whose sensitive nature compelled him to take his own life well before the national media had any idea of who he was or how he might be connected to the e.tv footage.
On the other hand Ngomane was a rural teenager. He was a friend to another teen with whom he was dragged through the streets, and a son to a mother forced to pelt them both with stones.
Both articles thus depict South Africa as a country with a lust to punish. From overflowing prisons to repeated calls for the reinstatement of the death penalty, South Africans and their government want criminals apprehended, labeled and punished (or simply stoned to death in the streets). There is no evidence that incarceration in South African prisons prevents repeat offending, indeed it may facilitate it. There is however evidence that by labeling someone a ‘criminal' and adopting a punitive paradigm, we encourage them to accept and live up to those labels. The men on e.tv were playing up to the ‘criminal' role created for them by South African society while Phungula, for whatever reason, felt his connection to the label and paradigm a burden too heavy to bear.
Why our obsession to punish one another? The last decade has broughtwith it significant progress in South African restorative justice. One example of this is the 2008 Child Justice Act which encourages diversion of young offenders away from prison. But such initiatives have developed side by side with some of the harshest minimum sentencing legislation in the world.
Who and what is ‘criminal' is something that changes over time and according to context - yesterday's terrorist is today's freedom fighter and trusted politician. As such it is we, as actors in society who contribute to the creation of the ‘criminal' and to how he or she should be engaged with. In South Africa this engagement includes an obsession to punish, a punishment which fails to address the fractures in our social fabric which create the ‘criminal' in the first place.
In the last two weeks a father took his life, a mother took her son's, and a nation lost some dignity. Are we too eager to point fingers at one another?
Written by: Andrew Faull, senior researcher, Crime and Justice Programme, ISS, Pretoria