Critical Essays Alan Paton's Who is Really to Blame for the Crime Wave in South Africa?""


[Reprinted, by permission, from The Forum, VIII, No. 37 (December 15, 1945): 7-8.]

The crime situation is very serious. The criminals who commit these serious crimes are for the most part natives. There is no hiding this fact, and I do not see how any newspaper could possibly hide it. Indeed, I do not see any good reason for hiding any of the facts about crime, except perhaps from children.

I do not think for one moment that we should derive any comfort from the fact that there is a world-wide epidemic of serious crime. Little is known about postwar outbreaks of crime, and, indeed, according to some of the theories, South Africa might expect to be relatively unaffected.

If we dismiss our present outbreak as a postwar phenomenon, it may prevent us from seeking and finding a second and much more important cause. This second and more important cause I take to be the disintegration of a native society beyond the safety point.

For many years it has been plain that the impact of our Western civilization was breaking native society into pieces, not only in the towns, but even in the very reserves set aside for its preservation.

For a long time the full dangers were not seen, but fathers and sons and daughters went to work and sometimes never came back. Or sometimes came back to visit and smoked and swaggered through the kraals; and daughters flaunted a new and alien, terrifying sexuality. But even in them, old tribal decencies were still rooted deep.

But the decay of decency had begun. We were blind to the fact that we were destroying the tribal culture. We were blind to the fact that one way of life cannot absorb another easily unless there are great similarities between them. We were blind to the fact that we could not change great numbers of native behavior patterns, and leave others unchanged and functioning. We were blind to the fact that we had started in the native mind itself a great cultural conflict. Our blindness was largely selfish; it suited us to change some behavior patterns, and to leave others unchanged.

The truth that you cannot absorb what you wish and reject what you wish was not seen by all of us. It was seen by some missionaries and teachers, not intellectually, but by spiritual insight. I doubt if they foresaw the terrible consequences of absorbing an alien society without educational, cultural, and spiritual preparation.

For a great length of time the simple, hardy tribal culture persisted; despite the many adaptations it had to make, its controls and restraints still held. Its homes continued to be sound. But, gradually, new homes were started by those who had begun to forget the tribal traditions; and tribal homes in the towns, robbed of the powerful support of tribal custom, began to experience with bewilderment and shame the shocks of disobedient children, pregnant daughters, and delinquent sons.

This decay of home life was accelerated by overcrowding, the growth of slums, the increase of drinking, the lowness of wages; it decayed in the reserves, too, where men did not come back, and where women went away to look for them and often found someone else.

Those who saw what was happening were gravely disturbed. They said that this process of careless, haphazard absorption could not go on; that the moral capital of the tribes was almost expended; that the safety point (which is the danger point) had been reached, and that white civilization would have to take grave measures to prevent the further disintegration of native society — disintegration that spelled danger for all.

These prophecies were uttered by professors, priests, teachers, social workers and government commissions; but the remedies were too staggering for those who saw the danger, and too heavy reading for those to whom the danger was remote.

But the danger is no longer remote; the extent to which the controls and restraints have broken down is plain. The newspapers are painful reading especially to those who are in positions of authority, and to those who love South Africa and the peoples in it

Now what are we to do? On certain points all may agree — more police, more non-European police, more pay for police, up-to-date equipment for police; the relatively swift and final segregation of dangerous offenders (in this regard the decision to refer most robbery cases to the Supreme Court is the utmost importance); greater precautions by householders; provisions of greater security by builders of houses.

That will help us a great deal. In particular do I lay stress on the relatively swift and final segregation of dangerous offenders. The important question is not "How long should he get?" but "When will it be safe to let him out?" That is not a question for the courts but for some court-prison-scientist authority, and this implies a fundamental change in our attitude toward offenders.

But deal how we may with native offenders, I must state the brutal truth that we are breeding more than enough native youths to take their places, without ideals or restraints — potentially bad and dangerous men. They are the products of this disintegrating society.

How is this society to be restored? I would be hypocritical if I pretended to examine the idea that new laws, new compulsions, and new penalties (except within certain prescribed limits) might restore the old society. Moral and spiritual decay can be stopped only by moral and spiritual means — by education, by work, by opportunity, by creating conditions in which self-respect and decency and morality may grow again.

It would be a last counsel of despair if we let this outbreak of crime turn us against the native peoples. It is we and they together who must quell it. Alone we never shall.

We wish we could find some kind of magic education that would teach natives to want to obey the law, and to want nothing else. There is no such education. Men obey the law when they are pursuing worthy goals, working for some good purpose, making the most of their seventy years, using their gifts.

It is these gifts of which we are afraid. And as long as we fear them we shall be at the mercy of other more terrible gifts, developed in the school of poverty, ignorance, and cunning. We have to choose between a purposeful, self-respecting, industrious and law-abiding native community and a shiftless, corrupt, idle, lawless community. It is because we do not make up our minds that things go from bad to worse.

Dingaan's Day [which commemorates the victory of the Boers, led by Pretorious, over the Zulus, led by Dingaan, at Blood River on December 16, 1838] is near, when we commemorate the triumph of civilization over barbarism. Do we mean a military or a spiritual triumph? If we mean a spiritual triumph — and I am sure many of us do — why don't we really make up our minds to civilize all the people of South Africa? I believe we could go to it with a new spirit, and that many of the fears and doubts that so poison the springs of action would disappear. Men would walk with a lighter step and a clearer conscience; they would face with greater courage the problems they contemplate today with gloom and lack of faith. That there are dangers we all know. But what could be worse than the way we are living now?

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