Reporting of crime in South Africa fits and feeds racist stereotypes, writes Jonathan Jansen in The Times.

Jonathan Jansen writes in The Times: 

n 1987 a survey among white South Africans asked whether they believed that under a black government “black men would molest white women.”

Between 78percent and 91percent of Afrikaners answered “yes” and more than 70percent of English-speaking whites said the same.

I have long pondered what kind of racist depravity would even enable such questions to be posed; but they were, and therein lies an answer, I believe, to the obsession with reporting crime day and night on the front pages of almost every white-owned South African newspaper.

Do not get me wrong. The level of crime is serious, and I have been a victim of it in every city in which I have lived (a stolen car in Durban, the theft of my security-gate motor in Johannesburg and the loss of a laptop computer in Pretoria) after 1994.

But there is something about the fervour with which many newspapers report crime that raises deeper questions about the racial psyche of whites in our country.

First of all, South Africa has always been a very violent country and it is the case that long before 1994 black citizens bore the brunt of both state violence and everyday crime in this racially divided country.

Second, some major cities in the world have violent spasms of murder (in malls, at schools and university campuses) from time to time, but you seldom see these events reported day after day on the front pages of most newspapers.

Third, crime is not simply “what blacks do to whites”; it is a truly non-racial sport in South Africa —- in fact, my security-gate motor was stolen by a young white man.

Useful samples of local front- page reporting are the Afrikaans newspaper Beeld and the English- language Pretoria News. Go to their websites to look at their current and previous front pages and you will find the most heart-rending crime stories highlighted in bold letters.

It is not simply recording the facts about crime that concern me; it is the wrenching and salacious detail with which newspapers report especially intimate crimes that makes raises questions in my mind about the South African racial psyche.

Take the brutal crime of rape. Black men break into a Johannesburg house inhabited by whites. The newspapers report every minute detail about the young woman isolated from her family, who are bound in another room; how she is dragged to her bedroom and raped by black robbers taking their turn with her.

The family patriarch lives through the unbearable ordeal of not being able to do anything to help his daughter.

As the robbers leave with their loot, one is reported to say “white bitch”.

Even as I write this I am sick to the stomach and angry at these men for what they have done to the family, and will probably get away with.

Yet as I reflect on this and similar accounts on front pages, I can not recall this level of detail in reporting on the many more black women raped in South Africa.

And why would the media go into such fine detail of what black men do to a white woman?

Surely this information is, at some level, private and the family could be spared reliving these intimate horrors (details which they will give to the police) spread across the front pages of national newspapers?

My sickened disgust at these men is exactly what the newspapers intend to evoke. And to have it replayed as “black men molesting white women” feeds historical and racist fears that lurk deep in the psyche of many white South Africans.

I think that most white South Africans cannot believe that the transition from apartheid was so peaceful and that they got away, scot-free, with centuries of racial hatred and oppression of black people.

When whites witness the racial and economic meltdown in Zimbabwe, their fears about what could happen to them in return for what they did to blacks appears to find resonance.

Many white South Africans, says a psychologist friend of mine, are still waiting for the other shoe to drop.

* Jonathan Jansen is a Fulbright Scholar at Stanford University, and writes a regular column in The Times.