Behind South Africa's Reggae Murder

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Gallo Records / Reuters

South African reggae star Lucky Dube.

Last week's murder of South African reggae star Lucky Dube, 43, in a failed carjacking should finally bury the misconception that the country's crime problem is a black-on-white issue. Dube, last Friday, was shot while dropping off his two teenage children at his brother's house in Rossettenville, near downtown Johannesburg. The children survived unharmed.

The death of an international music star who had sung against apartheid and in celebration of peace and unity sparked outrage across South Africa. The following day, crowds surrounded and beat a suspected purse-snatcher in Bez Valley, shouting that it was men like him "who had killed Lucky Dube." On Monday, police announced they had arrested five people in connection with Dube's murder, and the country's newspapers pointed out the irony in his tragic death. In his eerily prescient 2001 song "Crime and Corruption," Dube demanded that the post-apartheid government protect its people from the surging crime wave:

"Is it the bodyguards around you?
Is it the high walls where you live?
Or is it the men with the guns around you 24 four hours a day that make you ignore the crying of the people?
Do you ever worry about your house being broken into?
Do you ever worry about your car being taken away from you in broad daylight down Highway 54?
Do you ever worry about your wife becoming the woman in black?
Do you ever worry about leaving home and coming back in a coffin with a bullet through your head?"

Official statistics show that 52 people are murdered every day in South Africa — an annual murder rate of 43.1 per 100,000 people. The U.S., by comparison, has an annual murder rate of 5.7 per 100,000 people. Added to that each year are 200,000 robberies, 55,000 rapes, and half a million cases of assault, serious assault and attempted murder.

Although the victims in many of the murders that get the most media attention are white, it escapes no one in South Africa that the vast majority of victims are black. The same townships that were the cauldron of revolution before apartheid ended in 1994 are now crucibles of crime.

So what has happened to the new South Africa? The government argues that crime is fueled by the gross social iniquities bequeathed by apartheid. That may be true, but as Dube pointed out, it is also true that the African National Congress, the liberation movement that is now the ruling party, has been a disappointment. Unemployment is 40% overall, but in some areas — and among people under 30 — it is significantly higher. Given the poor sanitation, medical care, and water and electricity supplies to millions of impoverished South Africans, they could be forgiven for wondering how much the end of apartheid changed their lives. And the continuing economic apartheid — in which the haves now include a sizable black middle class — remains at the center of criminal violence.

Poverty by itself, however, does not create criminals — after all, destitution is far worse in other parts of Africa that have far less crime. But relative poverty — missing out while others seem to be gaining — can certainly fuel violent resentment. "There isn't as much support for the proposition that poverty causes crime in the international criminological literature as you might expect," writes South African criminologist Anthony Altbeker in a study published last month. "However, there is a much stronger conviction among academics that inequality causes crime; that the difference between what the rich and poor earn matters more than the depth of poverty. "

But why the violence? Any policeman will attest that a typical career thief prefers to minimize violence, which raises pressure on the police to catch him and increases severity of the punishment if he is convicted. But young South African muggers and burglars don't just rob for the money. Many want to inflict pain on their victims, beating, raping or killing them. Of the 200,000 robberies every year, more than half are classed as "aggravated," meaning the victim was also assaulted. A friend warned me before I arrived in South Africa nine months ago, "This is political crime," meaning the violence is a form of revenge on those more fortunate than the perpetrators. In a society where violence until very recently was part of the grammar of politics, it can still be rationalized by its criminal perpetrators as avenging inequality.

Following a series of riots in 2005 that pitched impoverished township dwellers against riot police in scenes reminiscent of the apartheid era, President Thabo Mbeki recognized the dangers posed by the ongoing social inequality. "The riots seek to exploit the class and nationality fault lines we inherited from our past," Mbeki told parliament. "If ever they took root, gaining genuine popular support, they would pose a threat to the stability of democratic South Africa." But Altbeker sees the danger exacerbated by the ANC's own policies of pursuing economic growth without promoting social equality. "A large body of economic thinking suggests that the widening of inequality is one of the inevitable by-products of rapid economic growth in developing countries," he writes. "There is no universal consensus on this, but if inequality really does tend to widen as economies expand, then we had better hope that it is not the principal reason we're so violent. Because it isn't going to get better soon."