Thoughts on South African and international politics and culture

Tuesday, January 30, 2007

Crime and Communication
The more stories of high-profile and localised crime that roll in, the more I can't help reinforcing that Government is making some grave errors in its relationship with the populace. Government's lack of communication over the issue of crime only engenders uncertainty and confusion amongst the people of South Africa, and even worse, gives the perception of a government unconcerned about the wants and concerns of its constituents. The fact may be that crime is not as bad as is the public perception, but the perception remains, and Governments lacklustre communication is of grave concern.

Messages out of Government on crime have been mixed at best, with Mbeki hiding his head in the sand on the same day as other high-ranking spokespeople acknowledged the issue and suggesting solutions. Recently, there seems to be a deafening silence, followed by Government pointing in the last day or two to NGO studies showing that crime has come down markedly since 1994. Unfortunately, with all the political violence in 1994, especially in the Gauteng townships, and in the rural areas of KZN and the Eastern Cape, this comes off a very high base. We should ideally be looking at 1997 or 1998 as a base year, from whence the picture will possibly look noticeably darker.

Government is distancing itself from its people. Unfortunately, perception rules over fact with a fear-inducing issue such as crime. Government should be communicating plans and structures almost daily, and be seen to be concerned about the problem. Those within the Union Buildings may argue that this amplifies the problem to the international commerce and social audience, but there are enough rogues within our borders who are spreading that message anyway. The time has come to stop the bleeding, and Government must take the lead. Start by communication more regularly and more effectively. Open the crime statistics to the public and set some accountable targets. Bring a national policing and training strategy to bear, and outline what's required on specific issues (drugs, gangsterism, unlicensed weapons etc). Overoptimistic? Probably... But on present form, crime may overshadow Mbeki's legacy, and will join Zimbabwe and AIDS as the key drawbacks of his time at Tuynhius.

What also surprises me is the concurrent lack of commitment from opposition parties in exploiting this weakness of the party in government. The DA has called for change, but has done little in entering alternative solutions and suggestions into the public debate. The DA, as the official opposition, should be championing this issue, delivering policy papers, being seen to be more empathetic with victims of crime (without being seen as disingenuous - a tough prospect for many within the DA) and taking the public's cause to Government.

This issue of crime is probably the key future threat to our democracy, and Government needs to heed the call of its people.