The Politics of Crime

Crime novels represent South Africa’s new socially conscious genre.


| Fall 2015


Twenty years after the end of apartheid (1948-1994), South Africa is home to one of the highest rates of violent crime in the world.  The fear of crime is reflected in everyday habits and interactions between people of different races, classes, and gender. In fact, it can take visitors awhile to get used to the fortress-like mentality in South Africa. Most families—lower middle class and above—live behind tall, electrified walls, with notices informing would-be criminals that an armed security company protects the property. Homes aren’t the only barricaded buildings. Hospitals are enclosed by barbed wire, their windows grated, with security guards who carefully record the names and license numbers of every visitor who drives onto the property. Urban churches have abandoned any kind of open door policy. On city street corners, a small army of workers hand out pamphlets to pedestrians and drivers, advertising traditional African healers whose list of services include protection from crime as well as the ability to make you invisible to your enemy (which, in some cases, may be the people you intend to rob).

This class war between the haves and have-nots is reflected in an undeniable reality that South African society is also still fractured along racial identities. Despite democratic elections that have ensured black governance for the past two decades, most white citizens still belong to the dominant class with its obvious privilege, power, and wealth, whereas black and mixed-race citizens still overwhelmingly occupy marginal positions on the edges of society.

Into this environment, the modern South African crime novel has emerged. Built with equal parts escapist impulse and social commentary, it critiques police and governmental corruption; examines the country’s unique social fault lines; and analyzes the peculiarities of South African identities.  South African crime fiction not only provides a brutal, realistic vision of the present and the ways the past continues to influence it, but it also offers a blueprint for a more hopeful future. It reveals the intricate web of connections between South Africa, the global economy, and crime syndicates. And the best of South African crime fiction reveals the strong humanitarian impulse that beats in the hearts of millions of the country’s citizens.

 

Writer and literary critic Leon de Kock argues that crime fiction is “the only readable form of ‘political’ fiction” available in South Africa today. Ironically, the country’s new “political” novel is also an emerging genre. During the apartheid era, when the police’s main function was to protect entrenched rights of white citizens and prevent black citizens from exercising basic rights of citizenship, crime novels were virtually nonexistent. Instead, apartheid-era novelists wrote political novels that confronted and assessed the systemic violence of white supremacy. There were a few exceptions, notably James McClure who coupled an Afrikaner detective (Tromp Kramer) with a Zulu detective (Mickey Zondi) in a series of detective novels that exposed the realities of apartheid through their incisive partnership.

But 1994 brought democracy, a transition to black governance, and hope for the future of the “Rainbow Nation.” The heavy-handed political novels of the apartheid era were replaced with novels in every genre that, in some way, assessed the new world created through the country’s remarkable transition from white hegemony to democratic governance for all citizens. Crime novels are an effective genre to describe the dislocation that occurred as social, economic, and political norms changed. For white South Africans, the ground quite literally shifted under their feet: Previously protected from all real and imagined threats, now the police force’s ability to protect the entire population was stretched thin against the new social fabric. Alternatively, for many black and “colored” (mixed race) citizens, the police force would have to prove itself and gain legitimacy—a process still in effect and uncomfortably ineffective in most townships.