22 July 2009

Crime vs. Lawlessnes

People talk about crime in South Africa in an extreme manner. This is not to say there's no crime or even suggesting that the statistics lie because I don't know if they do, and I suppose I don't have any particularly good reason to doubt they would. But the point is that someone is not definitely trying to murder you.

But law in South Africa appears to be a weird thing for an outsider like myself. It is understandable because of the history, I guess, because a certain section of the society has traditionally been, if not above, then at least favoured by the law, and other one has been oppressed by it. So I guess I can see how not thinking about it as a consideration as such could happen and even become a norm for some. Not for everyone, maybe only minority, but for someone from every section of the society.

When I talk about the general disregard of the law, I am not talking about people who get called gangsters, tsotsis or even criminals. Not them alone, at least, as they are one part of the situation and their actions get reported in an in depth manner in other platforms, but I am also talking about the soccer mums talking on the phone while driving, people going out drinking with their own cars and all the other convenient shortcuts just before the junction of what one should actually, according to the law at least, do. It's a general disregard of the law and we end up ignoring some important questions if we only talk about the the impact, and not the general mind set and set of values that allow one to select which laws are to be followed.

Everyone who breaks any laws breaks them in their own context, and as we know, hardly anywhere do the contexts differ as much as they do in South Africa. These contexts might not be very easily understood through each others but only through themselves. Therefore a highjacking might not be as far from a supposedly innocent text message on N1 as it might initially seem.

Immanuel Kant introduced an idea of the Categoric Imperative. He wrote:

"Act only according to that maxim whereby you can at the same time will that it should become a universal law.” (Immanuel Kant, 1785)

We can argue that we don't approve of stealing and so we don't steal ourself, but if we take a step back and look at the bigger picture then we must ask that what if we take the liberty of selecting the laws that apply to us. In my context it's maybe only a disregard and in someone else's it's a question of trying to counter the inherently unequal conditions of the society; to provide some bread on the table. Of course there are many other reasons for the crime but those really aren't so important for the point that I am driving.

I remember a few years ago in my home country, Finland, a Member of Parliament said how she had been smoking cannabis. To me that seemed quite unacceptable considering her mandate as a part of the law making organ. If, as a law maker, you select which laws apply to you, then can you be upset at the industrialist on the other end of the political spectrum who feels that the labour laws are basically holding him/her back and are quite oppressive. Isn't he/she then allowed to select that as an unjust law not to be respected?

This, of course, isn't to say that all laws are always just and the previous example was an extreme one as the person in question makes laws for living, but law generally is what we have and if you can select then so can I, and my decision might not always please you. Some lawless things don't necessarily hurt anybody in any way, but it is the idea here that is on the table, not so much the practice at this point.

But to take the idea of crime vs. general disregard of the law back to the South African streets. I live in Cape Town and I have never been a victim of the traditional crime. It's long time already since I was in Johannesburg, 2002 I believe, and I must admit that there the situation seemed more serious. That might, again, be due to the context that I was in, which was more humble than my rather middle class life style in the Mother City. In Johannesburg I thought about the possibility of dying twice, incidentally, in one day on two unrelated occasions, and that was also partly due to my own choices of where I was, but still, I don't feel threatened by the crime much. I have not personally had problems with it. With the disregard of the law however I have been in two car crashes in less than a year, both due to the other driver just not caring, looking or thinking. These have set me back financially and in other ways and the other drivers have been completely unapologetic. I find that to be more immediate threat to me, and maybe that is what we should warn the next year's world cup tourist about. Since it seems to be so important to let them know everything that can go wrong in this scary country.

To summarise, it's complicated, South Africa is a beautiful but scarred country and things most often aren't as simple as they may initially appear.

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