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The problem with becoming desensitised to crime

Crime affects all South Africans at every level of society, and yet instead of demanding change from our politicians and communities, we are becoming desensitised and accustomed to it. Danielle Hoffmeester shares her frustration of not knowing how to alleviate the problem when witnessing a crime. 

Crime is one of the key and pressing social challenges in South Africa. Our country is often referred to as a hotspot for criminal activity, and ours is a society with some of the highest levels of violent crime in the world. Yet collective knowledge of the afore, coupled with apparent collective indignant anger leaves analysts of (political) violence and crime-watchers in a state of discombobulation when they observe how tolerant South Africans actually are of crime, and in increasingly many cases, worryingly desensitised to violent crime. South African citizens consistently and systematically rank crime as one of their main concerns and yet incumbent politicians and members of authoritative bodies meant to prevent and deter crime are continually re-elected and retain their jobs. And in individual cases, communities frequently act as gatekeepers of criminals and criminal activity- for fear of backlash, or for personal gain.

Simultaneously, the sensitivity to crime and its consequences, in general, has dramatically changed in part due to its representation within the media, which is accompanied by the impression of normalcy, and that crime is ‘acceptable’ because of its pervasiveness. The empathy we may have felt watching a violent attack has diminished because of how often it is portrayed on television or the constant news updates, or the endless real-life exposure. The way we dialogue with one another- cavalier mock-threatening murder or other bodily harm, or finding entertainment in others’ pain- demonstrates a worryingly gradual desensitization to violence, in general, and how it manifests criminally.

Crime is so prevalent within our lives that the line has blurred between what actually affects us, and what leaves us unphased. Unless the violence is extreme and bloody and does not follow reason or logic, we begin to think of it as conventional and ordinary; just another day in South Africa. Desensitisation occurs through repeated exposure which, consequently, leads to a decreased emotional response to a negative catalyst. Constant exposure to violence affects and alters perceptions of social reality and impacts on the way we engage with the world, and with ourselves. Our desensitisation to violence begins to act as a (unhealthy) coping mechanism; we desensitise ourselves to alleviate the fear, and we begin to think of the world as a much worse and scarier place than we perceived prior to desensitisation.

Recently I visited a hair salon in a high-risk area. This salon is located next to a train station and across a taxi rank. A two-minute walk over the bridge – which goes over the railway lines – is a huge market place buzzing with people stocking up on their Christmas shopping. The salon itself is situated between a spaza shop and a shebeen. Inebriated men and women line the pavement; no one bats an eye. Scruffily-dressed children sell fruit and vegetables without adult supervision. These are worth mentioning to establish context and lend understanding to what are perceived as aggravating components of crime. Both the train station and taxi rank are under-policed, despite frequent shootouts. A five minute drive away from the salon is a police station whose officers are meant to be stationed at this high-risk area at all times. There was no police vehicle that day.

We were six women in the salon, chatting away about our plans for the festive season when we noticed a group of six boys loitering outside the establishment. The other women barely acknowledged the existence of these young men, but I felt immediately suspicious and hyper-aware of their presence. I turned my head to get a better look at this group, and two of them turned around and walked right up to the big, bar-less windows, and stared inside; they cupped their hands around their eyes and stared right in watching us. I felt my anxiety rising up, as I thought of how easy it would be to smash in the windows and rob us – or worse… One of the other young men tried to open the door to the salon- a casual, gentle pull of the latch, but the door was locked. It was always locked for as long as I’ve been visiting. He, then, pulled at it violently, and by this time, we were all staring at this boy, all unwilling to chase or chastise him. He gave up, and they moved toward the shebeen. After, the women complained about the youth of today who had no direction in life, and who were lazy and loitered about when they could have been looking for a job. I was gobsmacked and baffled: was I the only one who realised these boys tried to rob the salon and its occupants? Was I the only one freaking out?

Not long after, a white truck stopped in front of the salon, and an elderly man stepped out, apparently making a delivery to the spaza shop next door. The boys came back. They tried to open the doors at the back of the truck, but without success. They carried with them what looked like a crowbar, and tried, and tried, and tried to open the lock – to no avail. I was watching an attempted robbery, astonished that pedestrians were walking past them, oblivious and indifferent to what they were trying to do. I craned my neck even further to get a good look at their faces, and the women- all of them- urged me not to stare. “Don’t look or they’ll notice you,” I was told. They tried to break into the salon; they noticed all of us, I thought. After several attempts to open the truck, the boys gave up. They stepped away from the vehicle, and moved back toward the shebeen. The elderly man hurriedly came back out, hopped in his truck and left.

I called the police, who, at first, sounded bored with me, and then became abrupt after I asked for a police vehicle to be sent to the area. I explained the situation – numerous times, wasting my time – and provided the location my contact details. We waited 10 minutes and the police had not yet arrived. Within those 10 minutes, the stylist had finished my hair, and another white truck carrying two men stopped across the salon. I watched. The passenger got out and went into the spaza shop. The group of boys came back. Instead of fiddling with the trunk of the truck, they went right up to the driver’s side, and ‘spoke’ to him. It looked natural and casual. The other passenger came out and walked back to the truck, seemingly unaware of what was transpiring. One of the boys threw his arm around the passenger’s neck- again seemingly casual – and then shoved him into the vehicle, while he maintained a choke hold on the victim. Immediately, sensing they were distracted, I asked the salon owner to let me outside. I hightailed for my car, stealing a glance at what was happening a few feet in front of me: the boys had climbed in and were rummaging for money and other valuables. I started my engine, and drove off, feeling my anxiety overtaking me as I made my way home. Crime, as much as I knew about it, was not my reality. In my privileged life, I have had limited exposure to criminal activity, much of which I cannot adequately remember. My reaction was normal and, dare I say, healthy? I have not yet been desensitised to violence.

I was told the police appeared 40 minutes after my departure.

As a country, we have experienced and witnessed murder, assault, rape, and all other manifestations of violence. And as the numbers rise – and our exposure remains constant, and the violence becomes more extreme – our concern, our empathy, and our sensitivity declines.

Perhaps it is the statistics, or the media that has altered our perspective. Perhaps it is the reality of inhabiting a context that mirrors a war zone. Maybe it is because we think we cannot do anything to change or stem crime and violence. Whatever the cause or reason, desensitisation to violence will not help alleviate it at all. SA.

Image: Flickr/JanTruter

* The opinions expressed here by Spotlight.Africa contributors and editors are their own and not official statements of the Society of Jesus in South Africa or of the Catholic Church unless explicitly stated.


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Danielle Hoffmeester
Danielle Hoffmeester is a Masters candidate in Political Studies at the University of the Western Cape. Until two years ago, her focus centred on issues of security and democracy, in particular how the use and/or threat of weapons of warfare impact on the stability of established and fledgling democracies. Since, her focus has shifted to political violence and gender studies. She currently acts as the Project Assistant for Gender Justice and Reconciliation at the Institute for Justice and Reconciliation in Cape Town, South Africa. She is a proud feminist, and dreams of a global society in which feminist ideals of justice, freedom and equality is realised.

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