Richer sections of society should help remove poverty and crime

Dorothy Khosa

Dorothy Khosa

What kind of rage could consume teen brothers in Mabopane, Tshwane, to pour boiling oil on to their sleeping father and hack him repeatedly with an axe and a pick?

What game could provoke 13-year-olds to savagely torture an 18-month-old toddler?

It probably took just a moment for the boy from a school in Bedfordview, Johannesburg, to turn and stab his fellow pupil with a pair of scissors.

It is obvious that the tension that resulted in the death of the 19-year-old Forest High School pupil from repeated stabbing with a sharp instrument had been simmering for a while.

The question on everyone's lips is whether this kind of brutality is symptomatic of a society that does not value human life.

What does this have to do with poverty and inequity? Is it possible to identify the forces that produce this savage behaviour?

Are debates about "values" enough to help us understand this complex problem?

Many years ago Mahatma Gandhi identified that poverty was the worst form of violence ever experienced by humankind. The essence was not that the rich man had his castle and the poor relied on the sky as his roof, but the dehumanising effect poverty has on the poor.

The message portrayed is that when you are poor you have no value, you do not exist, you are easily dispensable and therefore do not deserve any respect. These messages continue to plague our society today.

This has, therefore, exposed the poor to a situation of vulnerability towards committing heinous crimes as a result of the bitterness generated by a lack of respect for the self. The viciousness towards other people comes as no surprise.

There has been an assertion from several forums that the violence currently sweeping through the country has very little to do with poverty. In actual fact the contrary applies; poverty is at the core of the current violent crimes. The politics of poverty also place the responsibility on the doorstep of the rich and powerful.

The violence perpetuated and experienced by the poor does not exonerate the rich at all. They, in fact, by omission or commission, play a pivotal role in further widening the gap from the poor.

They use sophisticated measures, which prove violent, in order to protect and amass more wealth for themselves.

It is often a trend, for example, that an expensive luxury car hijacked by a youth somewhere in the country lands in the hands of someone rich and powerful elsewhere in the country.

This vulnerability leads to exploitation of the poor to perform the rich's dastardly acts of violence or the creation of a market for their services.

The limitations of the values debate in understanding and solving the problem is that the values themselves are derived in relation to material conditions.

Societies have historically valued wealth, peace and stability. The stories and folklore told have as a central theme hard work and perseverance as the core principles in attaining wealth and status.

Twelve years of democracy have, despite all the remarkable achievements, unfortunately eroded this core value that has kept communities working in anticipation of a better life.

The creation of a few instant millionaires has sent a message that one does not necessarily need skills but connections to the right people in order to access lucrative deals. Those without these connections are left with no means. They get desperate and consequently get hooked into get-rich schemes or crimes that often lead to violence.

The school and the family ordinarily find it hard to mediate these push factors from the environment. Proof of this is thethousands of juveniles who are incarcerated for serious offences relating to the family's inability to provide for its children's physical and emotional needs.

Those entrusted with the responsibility of imparting societal values within the school are either not able to cope because they get overwhelmed, or they are not sufficiently equipped to deal with this complexity.

There is a belief that all the violence and other social ills whose symptoms are traceable to socioeconomic conditions can be treated only through the revival of the values debate.

In softening the poverty blow to society, other democracies, such as Canada, New Zealand and Japan, have ensured that they share some of their wealth by establishing sound welfare systems through providing housing and improved healthcare - the aim being to retain the people's dignity, thus reducing the levels of violence effectively.

The values debate cannot on its own yield desirable results in behaviour change. It will be viewed as an attempt to offer opium to impatient and restless poor communities unless it is preceded by altering the fundamentals through improving socio- economic conditions.

It is a huge challenge for the government, which inherited an apparently insurmountable backlog from the apartheid state. It is in the same vein no excuse for lack of service delivery to the growing impatience noted from deserving communities.

lDorothy Khosa works for the youth violence prevention programme at the Centre for the Study of Violence and Reconciliation.