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In 1976, first Soweto, then all of South Africa's poor black townships, rose up against apartheid in a tide of insurrection and protest. To this day, large areas of the country remain no-go areas for the police. In his 2008 book Thin Blue, for which he spent 350 hours on patrol with South Africa's police, Jonny Steinberg describes the relationship between police and criminals as part "negotiated settlement," part "tightly choreographed" street theater in which criminals make a show of running away and officers halfheartedly pursue them. His thesis is that "the consent of citizens to be policed is a precondition of policing." And in South Africa for two generations now, that consent has been lacking.
Why does no one trust the state? FOR blacks, it's partly because of South Africa's historical legacy. And for all South Africans, but particularly for whites, it's partly because the ruling African National Congress (ANC) is tarred by corruption and criminality. Scandals involving government ministers seem like a weekly occurrence. About a tenth of South Africa's annual GDP--as much as $50 billion--is estimated to be lost to graft and crime. The past two national police chiefs were sacked for corruption. In the southeastern city of Durban last year, all 30 members of an elite police organized-crime unit were suspended, accused of more than 116 offenses, including theft, racketeering and 28 murders. The initial lead investigator in Pistorius' case, Detective Warrant Officer Hilton Botha, was removed after it emerged that he faced trial on seven counts of attempted murder. Most damning of all, the ANC's self-enrichment has helped widen the inequality that first propelled it to power. The result of this dismal record is that while murder rates are down from their peak, the resentment and violence continue.
Unable to rely on the state, South Africans are forced to cope with crime essentially on their own--and over time, that has shaped the nation. Policing is largely a private concern. In 2011, South Africa's private security industry employed 411,000 people, more than double the number of police officers. In the townships, vigilante beatings and killings are the norm.
The ultimate example of this private crime control is the security estate. The ancestors of the white Afrikaners, 19th century Dutch settlers, had their own response to overwhelming danger: circling their wagons in an impenetrable laager. The most celebrated laager was at the Battle of Blood River in 1838, in which 470 Dutchmen killed 3,000 Zulu warriors while sustaining light wounds to just three of their own. The security estate--a walled-off cluster of houses protected by razor wire, electric fences, motion detectors and guards--is the 21st century laager. Its purpose is the same: separation from what Afrikaners call the swart gevaar or "black threat." The security estate is a private, individual, exclusive solution to that fear. And Silver Woods in Pretoria, where Pistorius lives behind electrified 8-ft.-high (2.5 m) security walls watched over by the estate's dedicated security force, is one of the most exclusive guarded communities in the country.