In November 2021, South African scientists discovered yet another mutation of the Covid-19 virus, the Omicron variant. There have been nearly two years of various “lockdowns” and repeated states of disaster, based on the stipulations of the Disaster Management Act of 2002.1South African Government, “Disaster Management Act 57 of 2002,” https://www.gov.za/documents/disaster-management-act, Accessed: 3 February 2021; South Africa, The Disaster Management Act 57 2002. Pretoria: Government Printers, 2003. While the threat of a “fourth wave” remains, there does appear to be temporary respite because of the less severe symptoms of the Omicron variant. Still, the coronavirus and lockdown measures have had a crippling effect on the South African economy and her people. The pandemic exacerbated pre-existing conditions of economic hardship and marginalization in South Africa in many ways.

The South African economy has been declining since the 1970s, as the country abandoned continued Import Substitution Industrialization (ISI) in favor of apartheid. Industry became increasingly subjected to worker organization, and domestic and international resistance to the political dispensation towards racial segregation increased through the 1970s and 1980s. Moreover, inequality and economic marginality have deepened since the transition to democracy in 1994, as the African National Congress (ANC) government turned towards Washington DC and, as a result, the Chicago School of Economics for policy advice. The fraught Growth, Employment, and Redistribution (GEAR) macroeconomic strategy wreaked havoc on unemployment and inequality.2P. Bond, Elite transition: From apartheid to neoliberalism in South Africa. 2nd ed. Pietermaritzburg: University of Kwazulu-Natal Press, 2005; H. Maris, South Africa: Limits to change. Clarement: University of Cape Town Press, 2011; S. Terreblanche, The history of poverty and inequality in South Africa. Pietermaritzburg: University of Kwazulu-Natal Press, 2002.  So too did years of apparent aimlessness in economic policy implementation in the 2010s, amidst increased ANC in-fighting and state capture.3A. Dessai, “The Zuma moment: Between tender-based capitalists and radical economic transformation.” Journal of Contemporary African Studies, 36(4), 2018, 499–513.

My research into the politics of crime in Potchefstroom, a small city in the Northwest Province adjacent to the Ikageng township, reveals that much of the underlying political, economic, and social problems were worsened by the pandemic. These problems are likely to continue in a post-Covid-19 social order.4G. Van Riet, Hegemony, Security Infrastructures, and the Politics of Crime: Everyday Experiences in South Africa. London: Routledge, 2021. Much of the problem may be framed in terms of Norwegian sociologist Johan Galtung’s distinction between a positive and a negative peace and, I would argue, the analogous view of peace as an event versus peace as a process.5 J. Galtung, “Violence, Peace and Security. Journal of Peace Research,” 27(3), 1969, 167-191. The former views South Africa’s peace as something supposedly achieved in 1994 and current crime levels as a function of individual deviousness, and therefore as an aberration. From the view of peace as a process, crime is seen as a structural problem; a societal problem, in which all citizens have a responsibility to intervene constructively.

The reshuffled, more multiracial middle and upper classes that emerged following South Africa’s democratic transition have become comfortable, purchasing security from Private Security Companies (PSCs) and the services these companies offer, often to protect them from destitute “others” who are (still) viewed as “out of place,” as “loitering” and so forth. PSCs often conduct policing in ways the South African Police Service (SAPS) is not willing to. There have, for example, been instances where the SAPS refused to harass homeless people, citing constitutional rights.6G. Van Riet, “Intermediating between conflict and security: Private security companies as infrastructures of security in post-apartheid South Africa.” Politikon: The South African Journal of Political Studies, 47(1), 2020, pp.81-98. Such discourses that circulate through the likes of social media, local newspapers, and the Community Policing Forums (CPFs) sustain classist and racist policing by private actors. This form of policing is facilitated by policies such as the City Improvement District Act no. 12 of 1997,7South Africa, City Improvement District Act no 12 of 1997, Pretoria: Government Printers, 1979. which is often given substance through municipal by-laws that formally invoke a given City Improvement District (CID). Notions of public-private partnership in service delivery, including security, are at the heart of such legislation. Informal arrangements between the SAPS and PSCs at the local level have been notorious for their problematic relationship with accountability. In this regard, documents such as the 2016 White Paper on Safety and Security8Civilian Secretariat for Police. White Paper on Safety and Security. Online: https://www.saferspaces.org.za/resources/entry/2016-white-paper-on-safety-and-security Accessed: 2 February 2022.have been rather vague and ineffectual in terms of their ultimate impact on accountability. Moreover, most of the reshuffled post-democratic middle and upper classes have benefitted from such policing.

Security infrastructures in Potchefstroom, therefore, create exclusionary zones that potentially close off livelihood options for the poor. Regular people are subject to surveillance, even in the suburbs, and those deemed out of place are “gently” removed or redirected through the distribution of economic opportunities in particular parts of the city. Consequently, security infrastructures help shape a type of spatial purity that fuels many of the underlying causes of crime linked to deprivation and it likely displaces crime onto impoverished communities, as has been argued in other instances.9T.  Paasche, R. Yarwood, and J. Sidaway, “Territorial tactics: The socio-spatial significance of private policing strategies in Cape Town.” Urban Studies, 51(8), 2014, pp. 1559–1575; R. Samara, R. T. 2011. Cape Town after apartheid: Crime and governance in the divided city. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2011. Those in positions of relative power “reclaim” public spaces as if it belongs to this minority. They do this through structures such as CIDs, neighborhood residents’ associations, and subtle initiatives such as making informal “car guarding”—a uniquely South African institution, whereby unemployed residents guard unattended cars for voluntary donations. The same goes for the previously established practice whereby unemployed pickers collect recyclable scrap materials. In the recently formed Cachet Park (CID), a PSC has taken over that function with foot patrols, over 100 live monitored cameras in the space of a few street blocks, and a mobile incident reporting center. The prospects for picking recyclable materials out of rubbish bins have suffered a similar fate, as the CID and certain neighborhood residents’ associations signed formal contracts with a recycling company.

The pandemic has compounded problems of poverty, inequality, and a lack of gainful employment, thus corresponding with the classic formulation of Strain Theory as a cause of crime by Robert Merton in 1938. This explanation of crime is not universal. It does, however, partly account for levels of crime in South Africa. A recent World Bank Report found that already exceptionally high levels of unemployment have increased during the pandemic.10World Bank, Building back better from COVID-19, with a special focus on jobs. South Africa Economic Updated Edition 13, 2021. Online: https://documents1.worldbank.org/curated/en/161431626102808095/pdf/Building-Back-Better-from-COVID-19-with-a-Special-Focus-on-Jobs.pdf Accessed: 2 February 2021. According to this report, the economy had already shed 1.4 million jobs by the end of 2020 and those still employed, especially the working poor, were earning 10-15 percent less than before the pandemic. South Africa now has a record high unemployment rate of 33 percent.11Ibid, p. 4 This figure is based on the “narrow definition” of unemployment, which excludes discouraged jobseekers. The World Bank12Ibid further notes that the pandemic is increasing material inequality, which was already amongst the highest in the world. High levels of unemployment exist alongside conspicuous consumption such as shopping mall development, another form of exclusionary spatial practice that has ballooned since the end of apartheid. At the same time, those in privileged positions continue to build and draw on security infrastructures, such as barriers, alarm systems, and armed response companies, and thereby “manage” most of the population out of sight. Such practices have never been tenable in the long run. Therefore, my research into crime and resulting security measures reveals much about the shortcomings of South Africa’s post-apartheid peace. Installing security infrastructures is associated with a view of peace as a historical event and not something to be worked on continuously and constructively by all South African citizens as guaranteed by the Bill of Rights.13South Africa, The Constitution of the Republic of South Africa Act 108 of 1996, Pretoria: Government Printers, 1996.

Crime is largely viewed in terms of individual pathology and environmental design, not as a societal or structural problem. In this regard, the response to crime in a post-pandemic South Africa is likely to compound the challenges posed by consistent losses of livelihoods and societal inequalities accelerated by the pandemic. The “new normal” will likely be one plagued by familiar problems compounded by the pandemic, as the peace has played out as an event and not a continuous process, involving the public in a more meaningful and sincere integration. It is therefore a negative peace in Johan Galtung’s vocabulary. Dealing with this formidable problem that is essentially one of habitual divisive practices within the social order would likely mean creating more opportunities for diverse groupings to converse and develop an understanding of the numerous challenges each faces. These enduring racial and class-based divisions have served the government through a type of divide and conquer politics. Accordingly, your enemy’s enemy is your friend. If South African residents across historic fault lines learn to support each other’s causes, the parties in power start to matter less. To stay in power, government at all levels will have to exercise greater responsiveness to public demands for necessities like security for all. What is required is the realization that South Africa is a complex social order, not merely comprised of two homogenous groups.14G. Van Riet, Hegemony, Security Infrastructures, and the Politics of Crime: Everyday Experiences in South Africa. London: Routledge, 2021. The proposed dynamic politics of mutual support will be difficult to initiate. If, however, it reaches a critical mass, the absence of invited and invented spaces15G. Van Riet, and D. Silander, “Civil Society,” in D. Silander, C. Silander, C., P. Heydenrych, and H. Van der Elst, (eds.), Democracy at a crossroads: South Africa 25 years after apartheid. Bingley: Emerald (forthcoming). and the failure of the political party system to deliver a better quality of life for all might be circumvented, at least in part.

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