Crime's worst horror is all in the mind


Brandon Hamber and Sharon Lewis


Sunday Times, 1 March 1998



Guilt, anger and stress among victims is winning South Africa for the criminals, write Brandon Hamber and Sharon Lewis.


Crime has over the past few years dominated headlines in South Africa. But although the crime rate has risen over the past decade, the media's extensive coverage has created a skewed picture of it. Based on the reporting, most South Africans subscribe to the view that crime continues to spiral out of control. According to recent police statistics, however, the crime rate has been falling.


The statistics are debatable. It is probably more accurate to argue that crime is stabilising, making now a good time to examine some of our perceptions of it. We should not underestimate the impact and extent of violent crime. It has taken, and continues to take, its toll on our society. In almost all cases involving violent crimes in the home, post-traumatic symptoms follow. These can leave a person feeling powerless and out of control. People may experience nightmares, painful feelings and intrusive thoughts about the trauma. Most victims are left with a lingering sense of dread and a fear that they will be victimised again. Feelings of sadness, irritability, guilt and anger are common. Revenge fantasies are also typical. Although they are a normal response, they may be disturbing, especially to those who consider themselves to be nonviolent.


No community in South Africa has remained untouched by violence. In addition, very few people have been left unscathed by violence committed during the damaging apartheid years. It is therefore possible to argue that, at least on some levels, the entire population may be suffering from a collective post-traumatic response. This may explain the public's desire to take revenge on criminals, as well as their high levels of anxiety and guilt.


Revenge fantasies and revengeful acts are clearly reflected in the public's demand for more violent policing of criminals, in the rise of self-administered justice and in the wide public support for the death penalty. There is a risk that victims of violence who are not supported and treated may themselves become perpetrators of violence. The tragic aspect here is that, in most cases, victims turn their anger against friends and family rather than against the assailant. Rather than decrease the crime rate, however, revenge attacks on suspected criminals serve to continue the cycle of violence.


Ongoing fear, anxiety and obsession about possible victimisation are common re- actions to trauma. These may be exacerbated by unresolved feelings of distress and uneasiness created by many years of political and social violence. This, coupled with high levels of violence, could be contributing to growing feelings of anxiety in the population. It is this anxiety that can cause people who have not personally been victims to exaggerate the danger they face. It may explain why people feel that nothing is being done to curb increasing crime, even if this is not the case. Self-blame and guilt are also common in people who have suffered a trauma. Victims may wonder why they were targeted. In almost all situations, they feel they could have done something different to prevent the trauma from happening. This guilt is often made worse by friends blaming the victim for, typically, driving or walking in the wrong place or wearing the wrong clothes.


If untreated, guilt and self-blame may lead victims to create a range of fictitious reasons to explain their victimisation. For example, many people in South Africa mistakenly believe their race is the main reason they have been victimised. Clearly, as we all seek to give our experiences meaning, it is difficult to accept that victims of criminal violence are largely chosen at random - although some communities, especially poorer ones, may be more affected by, or susceptible to, criminal violence.


Flaws in the criminal justice system serve only to intensify these feelings. Insensitive and judgmental behaviour by police also discourages victims from reporting crime. This is particularly true for child victims and victims of domestic violence and rape. Under-reporting makes matters worse because, without accurate information, it is difficult for the authorities to figure out which areas need priority intervention. Under-reporting may also be reinforced by the fact that only the most gruesome crimes reach the newspapers or are discussed by South Africans. The result is a belief that all crime is violent and that violence is committed only by unknown assailants in the pursuit of a quick buck. This blurring means that common crimes in South African homes, like wife battery and child abuse, are concealed.


It is clear that we need unambiguous information about the extent of crime and the areas most severely affected. Obviously, we also need to improve the justice system. Equally pressing is the need to continue to treat the post-traumatic effects of past and present violence because its impact clouds our judgment and creates many misperceptions about crime. Perhaps, as the rate stabilises, we should all step back briefly and reassess our own beliefs about crime. This is not to say that we should abandon our fight against it or be soft on the perpetrators but, until we come to terms with the trauma of living in a violent society, a culture of fear, anxiety and anger is likely to prevail.


It is this situation, understandable and realistic as it is on some levels, that makes us see the violence in our society as spinning increasingly out of control, even when it is not. In the long run, this fuels a sense of helplessness in the society - in turn, psychologically empowering the criminals and preventing us from finding creative solutions.


Brandon Hamber and Sharon Lewis are both Clinical Psychologists.