Everything you ever wanted to know about crime, but were too afraid to ask

crime

IT INFILTRATES OUR very existence – from the way in which we conduct ourselves in life, to the literature we read, the misconceptions of others we indulge in and the sensationalism that it smears across a world of broken dreams. The concept and reality of crime, that is. And with this reflection on the all-pervasiveness of it, the Comaroffs’ latest publication The Truth About Crime is unputdownable, but not for the conventional reasons. This foray into the complexities of crime, particularly in a South African context comes under the intense focus of quintessential seasoned sociologists Jean and John Comaroff; while you will not emerge with one gleaming “truth” which reflects “solution”, you will have a rollercoaster of a read.

Academic writing is a curious thing. Fraught with many rules of accreditation and checks and balances, it can be immensely dry and formulaic. Combined with old-fashioned hard work and rigorous intelligence, it can surpass the value of any bit of fiction, even yarns well-written. And this is what you get here: an intense, oft witty, detailed and wise explication on stories that go bump in the night, about real people. The text is dense but it flows with a mellifluousness that makes you want to read it out aloud. The Comaroffs play with sounds and idioms, with parables and metaphors as they knit together associations and perceptions, book research and field work.

While they do manifest a tendency to use terms like the ancient regime as a reflection on apartheid, which might not necessarily always be contextually meaningful to most readers, and you obviously need to bypass the in-text references if you’re just an ordinary reader and not an academic, these are minor digressions that cannot even be seen as inconveniences. The text is divided into two parts – the first offers insight into the historical dynamics of modernity and its interface with policing, the order of things, and the economy of representation; the second looks at the other side of crime dynamics, the mythostats and the kangaroo courts, the witch hunts and the alternative methods designed and marketed to keep crooks out of your stuff, including the fake ivy product on the contemporary South African market called Eina!

Stories pepper the text, from the big headline events that saw Oscar Pistorius attempt to use white fear as a foil to explain the violent death of his girlfriend Reeva Steenkamp, to more low key ones that sometimes don’t make it to headlines, but are nevertheless no less complex and disturbing. These include the 50-year-old hairdresser in the Western Cape willing to sjambok any miscreant to death in the name of social justice. They’re stories told with a great deal of levity, accessible facts and balance, leading you through the Comaroffs’ focus by the proverbial hand.

Indeed, the book touches on all the bits and pieces that comprise our society, and there are moments in which you will feel as though you’re reading a South African manifestation of Michel Foucault, touching as it does on so many elements that point to the basis of power in our society. But it is not the last word in crime. It’s not a how-to text that offers you insight into where you should go to protect your body, your loved ones and your life from being hurt by others. But it doesn’t pretend to be.

You emerge from this heady read with a whole lot of stories that you won’t forget in a hurry. You emerge with an enlarged sense of context as to the huge catchall that may be understood as criminal behaviour – from the draconian rules and appalling legalism applied by the apartheid regime, to the values of the 1990s Muslim organisation People Against Gangsterism and Drugs that was headlined in the Western Cape. It’s a book that will stand proud and well-thumbed on any reader’s bookshelf – over and above the mandatory university library and syllabus for which it is designed.

  • The Truth About Crime: Sovereignty, Knowledge, Social Order by Jean Comaroff and John L Comaroff is published by Wits University Press (2017).
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