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  • The Truth about Crime: sovereignty, knowledge and social order by Jean Comaroff, John L Comaroff
  • Lizette Lancaster (bio)
Jean Comaroff and John L Comaroff (2017) The Truth about Crime: sovereignty, knowledge and social order. Chicago: University of Chicago Press; Johannesburg: Wits University Press

Most South Africans deeply believe that South African crime and violence levels are ‘out of control’. Equally profound is the fear, moral panic and outrage associated with these perceived levels of crime. For many, crime stands distinct from, although not unrelated to, growing inequality, persistent poverty and unemployment, sustained structural violence, entrenched corruption and continued failure of governance systems to deliver services guaranteed under the Constitution. Furthermore, it seems nothing is working to reduce these sustained levels of crime and violence.

Nationally and internationally, crime has become an obsession that redefined our arts, our politics, our markets, our science and technology. This global preoccupation with crime and punishment is evidenced by the proliferation of crime dramas. In stark contrast to the lived reality, in these crime stories, the mystery is solved, perpetrators caught and brought to justice, thus restoring the social order.

Prominent South African-born anthropologists Jean Comaroff and John L Comaroff provide hard-hitting commentary on the stark realities of a post-apartheid democratic South Africa and its struggle to deal with crime. Through the lens of anthropology, The Truth about Crime provides a fascinating academic contribution not only to the field of anthropology but also criminology. The authors use their substantial knowledge of South Africa, the United States of America and other global settings to [End Page 139] draw parallels. Their unique and fresh insights have tremendous relevance to the public discourse in South Africa. What is offered makes us think differently about what we think we know about crime.

This book brilliantly contextualises the modern dilemma faced by our society. It draws on the ideological roots of modern-day law enforcement and incarceration. The authors rightfully illustrate how South Africa and many modern societies define themselves against crime in the pursuit of the illusive social order and the belief in the sovereignty of the state. Comaroff and Comaroff argue that insights about crime contribute to an improved understanding of the relationship between capital, governance, and the state.

At its heart, the question posed is what exactly lies beneath this crime fixation? The answers proposed require a complete reconsideration of the construct of crime. What is the meaning of crime, who are the perpetrators, who are the guardians and what does this say about criminal justice in the present? While these ‘big questions’ posed in the book remain largely rhetorical, it provides complex commentary on how perceptions of crime impact on or are impacted on by class, race, gender, generation, law and violence itself.

A fundamental feature of the book is the relationship between crime and policing. The authors show convincingly how the police are unable to deal with their ‘impossible’ mandate, which has been flawed since its conception. The line between law-making, law-breaking and law enforcement has become excessively blurred by harsh authoritarian militarised policing, juxtaposed with liberalist managerial approaches to law enforcement and the outsourcing of physical security. This outsourcing takes place not only through privatisation to the commercial sector but also through its dereliction of duty to, and struggle to be accepted by, ‘communities’ leading ultimately to entrenched community self-protection practices. What is patently clear is that policing and all the tools of the trade such as statistics and the technology employed cannot bring about social order effectively, let alone facilitate the prevention of crime or minimise persistent levels of anxiety. Yet the point is made very successfully that fear of crime is often disproportionate to risk.

In reality, fear is rooted in increasing distrust and deep suspicion of established authority. Rising global and local perceptions of insecurity and cynicism speak of a rapidly changing world, crushed expectations of a ‘good life’ and the search for identity, given that the democratic [End Page 140] transition has not brought about equality, economic growth or social justice for many. Rather, disenchantment with the state is growing, and the state is outsourcing its responsibility to the private sector and...


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pp. 139-141
Launched on MUSE
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