Anthropology of Violence, Security, and Crime Prevention in Plural Societies

Since 2003 I have also conducted ethnographic fieldwork on issues of violence, security and crime prevention in sub-Saharan Africa, most particularly South Africa (2003, 2004-2005, 2006, 2008). My research in this field has dealt with non-state forms of preventing crime and providing security for oneself and others. I have done participant observation in institutions such as private security companies and community policing forums, as well as among a variety of civil-society initiatives aimed at reducing crime, for example, ‘Business against Crime‘  and ‘Boxing against Crime‘.

To contextualize my research, it is important to point out that in contemporary South Africa, where the ‘security of the person‘ was declared a constitutional right in 1996, continuous high levels of crime are widely regarded as a threat to general social peace and national reconciliation while also raising questions about the government‘s ability to act effectively as the sovereign power. At the same time, state agencies engaged in crime prevention, such as the police, are frequently overburdened and on occasion suspected of not having changed themselves sufficiently since the fall of apartheid. In this complex setting, what is at stake are the interrelated questions of the legitimacy of the state, of means and ends in asserting law, and of actors involved in the prevention and policing of crime. Taken together, non-state actors of various backgrounds all claim to be establishing, maintaining or reestablishing the social order. But how in particular this ‘social order‘ should be accomplished is controversial. This is also because the different groupings have divergent understandings of the relationship between ‘public good‘ and ‘private benefit‘. What is deemed desirable and legitimate by one group is often seen as undesirable and illegitimate by others.

My approach to this topic is informed by the idea that crime prevention is a practice that anticipates negative occurrances in the future in order to prevent them in the present. However, in this very process, these very anticipations are being proactively inscribed in and thus made part of the social world. My research has focussed on the contested nature of crime prevention practices by non-state actors and agencies. I conceptualize these actors as ‘lay criminologists‘ in order to explore their specific socio-culturally bound ideas about the causes of ‘criminal behaviour‘ as well as the different measures they put in place to prevent it. At the same time, in my publications I have dealt with unintended consequences of these measures. For example, I have shown that the state-endorsed model of the ‘community policing forum‘ (CPF) is modelled on concepts of peacefulness, all-inclusiveness and transparency. This means that any individual can participate in his or her neighbourhood CPF. However, in the final analysis the principle of all-inclusiveness at times proves detrimental to what CPFs are supposed to be doing, namely preventing crime, because it exposes them to participation by potential criminals. Cases have been documented of criminal networks infiltrating a local CPF. Drawing on my fieldwork data, I have argued that this paradoxical constellation can lead to situations in which citizens enact ‘civic states of exception‘, that is, affirming CPF principles (and, by extension, the principle of participatory democracy in South Africa) by temporarily suspending them through vigilante action.

What is more, my work in this field has dealt with a particular, often overlooked aspect of security and crime prevention in South Africa, namely the theft of electricity and, very recently, the theft of material infrastructure such as telephone wires, which has become a serious problem in South Africa and neighbouring countries; I have published on both of these topics. As regards the former, I analysed the illegal tapping of the electricity network in Soweto and the measures designed to prevent it, as well as the activism of the so-called Soweto Electricity Crisis Committee and its ‘guerilla technicians‘, who clandestinely reconnect defaulters who have been disconnected by the electricity provider.