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“The white elites in SA are used to controlling their worlds” – a Q&A with Jean and John Comaroff

“The Truth about Crime is replete with original insights. Reflecting on the disproportionate relationship between fear and actual danger in a number of major countries, Jean and John Comaroff explain why criminality, although far from matching many other potential sources of public peril, elicits much more civic outrage. We learn how changes in the meaning of criminality and the nature of crime-and-policing are associated with the recent shift in the relationship between capital, governance, and the state. We also learn how these developments in both the United States and the Republic of South Africa have resulted in steps taken to discipline or control certain groups defined or viewed as threatening. This is a compelling book, a must-read for scholars and laypersons alike.” – William Julius Wilson, author of The Truly Disadvantaged

The Comaroffs’ constant articulation of sparkling ethnographic vignettes, rich statistical data, and highly imaginative insights makes for a truly effervescent argumentation, creative and, at the same time, thoroughly documented. With this combination they offer a powerful book that newly addresses a theme that is becoming central all over the world: our increasing obsession with (in)security.“- Peter Geschiere, author of Witchcraft, Intimacy, and Trust
In this book, renowned anthropologists Jean and John L. Comaroff make a startling but absolutely convincing claim about our modern era: it is not by our arts, our politics, or our science that we understand ourselves – it is by our crimes. Surveying an astonishing range of forms of crime and policing – from petty thefts to the multibillion-dollar scams of too-big-to-fail financial institutions to the collateral damage of war – they take readers into the disorder of the late modern world. Looking at recent transformations in the triangulation of capital, the state, and governance that have led to an era where crime and policing are ever more complicit, they offer a powerful meditation on the new forms of sovereignty, citizenship, class, race, law, and political economy of representation that have arisen.

To do so, the Comaroffs draw on their vast knowledge of South Africa, especially, and its struggle to build a democracy founded on the rule of law out of the wreckage of long years of violence and oppression. There they explore everything from the fascination with the supernatural in policing to the extreme measures people take to prevent home invasion, drawing illuminating comparisons to the United States and United Kingdom. Going beyond South Africa, they offer a global criminal anthropology that attests to criminality as the constitutive fact of contemporary life, the vernacular by which politics are conducted, moral panics voiced, and populations ruled.

The result is a disturbing but necessary portrait of the modern era, one that asks critical new questions about how we see ourselves, how we think about morality, and how we are going to proceed as a global society.

Phys.Org, a website concerned with science, research and technology, recently conducted an interview with the authors:

Q: Wasn’t there an empirical rise in crime just after the transition of power in South Africa in 1994?

JEAN: Crime rates, particularly in places where there has been radical transition – such as post-Soviet Russia and Latin America – have tended to increase in the wake of such change. In South Africa, after the 1994 transition there was said to be an uptick in crime, then a tailing off, a plateau, and then a diminishing in many categories of felony. However, most people would simply not believe this; the most adamant being those who were least vulnerable because they could afford private protection.

JOHN: For us, then, the question became: Why do those who are least affected by crime panic most about it?

JEAN: Ironically, the populations most affected by crime – the poor, black South Africans, especially women – obsessed about it least. They suffered massive unemployment, the HIV/AIDS epidemic, and domestic violence against women and children. They were the ones who victimized each other in a state of desperation; these communities had so much to worry about that they did not obsess nearly as much about crime, which had long been a fact of their everyday lives.

JOHN: Globally speaking, criminologists debate whether crime rates have gone up or down. And that is a complex question, largely depending on what and how we count. But the question for us is: What do we actually talk about, what do we actually mean, when we talk obsessively about crime? Like Americans these days, South Africans have a lot to panic about. We ought to panic here in South Africa about accidents – or at least what appear to be accidents, the rates of which are extremely high – and about rising poverty and inequality; just as in North America we ought to worry about the disappearance of security nets at the behest of conservative ideology, which is putting more and more people in deeply desperate conditions. But we seem not to panic too much about these things. Or, at least, not for long or in any systemic way. When it comes to crime here in South Africa, we all have stories, bad stories, but these do not necessarily add up to statistically significant phenomena – which figures on poverty and inequality do. Ironically, it is only the poorest, the most destitute, who actually suffer criminal violence with the kind of frequency that is statistically significant. Ironic, because it is those populations who are more often accused of crime, rather than seen as its usual victims. One of the objectives of the book is to explain all this, to make sense of the phenomenology of fear – and why it is that we invest so much attention away from things that should worry us toward those that, while certainly a cause for concern, are hardly cause for panic. And yet elections across the world are fought in the name of law and order, of being tough on crime. Not poverty or inequality.

Q: You say the white elites in South Africa have the highest anxiety about crime, yet they experience the fewest incidents. What accounts for the disconnect in their reaction?

JEAN: They are used to controlling their worlds. So, if they suffer a domestic robbery or a carjacking, it feels momentous, life-threatening – which it sometimes is, although less often than South African whites believe – because life is meant to be safe for people like them. Or so they assume. They buy insurance. They live in well protected homes. They believe that the state ought to protect them. Those who live on the South Side of Chicago or in black townships – or, for that matter, in US inner cities – are not in control of their worlds in the same way. And do not have the same expectations.

Q: Do you both feel safe living in Cape Town?

JEAN: We feel no less safe living in Cape Town than we did when we lived on the South Side of Chicago, where affluent and deprived communities live in close proximity. In both, crime rates vary enormously across the urban scape. If one knows the social geography and crime maps of the city in which one lives – and one has the means, the capital – one can avoid dangerous areas to a significant degree.

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