"It is not crime in the way you see it": crime discourses and outlaw culture in Yizo Yizo.
A glance at the literature produced in response to post-1994 crime offers mainly conventional frameworks for the understanding of social deviancy, delinquency, crime, and violence, thereby hobbling intervention strategies in their attempt to keep up with the growth of crime in South Africa. While these theoretical understandings have some value and may even lead to breakthroughs in understanding the causes and nature of crime, there needs to be a paradigm shift in the way in which crime and violence are perceived and investigated. This assertion is supported by the observation that conventional theoretical paradigms generated in privileged environments have in many instances failed to explain social deviancy occurring in less privileged societies. Mainstream paradigms based on conventional modes of understanding will not be of much use in explaining the nature and causes of crime if they slight the specificities of particular, and possibly unfamiliar, contexts.
Anthony Altbeker (2001) highlights the tensions between locality-based discourses on crime and conventional 'one-size-fits-all' approaches. One of his most important observations relates to perceptions of moral responsibility vis-a-vis the law and an understanding of what constitutes legality and, conversely, outlaw psychologies and cultures. His insights bring an important dimension to the debate about crime in South Africa and underscore the need for a conceptual paradigm shift:
The institutions of law ... are rooted so shallowly in the consciousness of some of the citizens of South Africa ... In such a context, society in general, the police in particular are not so much dealing with criminals, they are dealing with outlaws--people who are outside of the reach of the law, and whose identities have not been shaped by the law; people whose relationship with the world is not mediated by the social relations which the law is both premised on, and seeks to guarantee and uphold. (2001:25)
It is against the backdrop of claims such as these that this article proposes to investigate representations of crime in the South African government commissioned television drama series, Yizo Yizo (1999). The series, as it unfolds, offers a cluster of arguments concerning crime and violence in post-apartheid South Africa. The interventionist strategies depicted in the film contrast with conventional approaches that are shown to be ineffective. Also important is the film's highlighting of that permeable and shifting frontier between law-abiding citizens and anti-social miscreants. I shall use Yizo Yizo's characterisations to investigate the tensions between crime discourses and their cinematographic representations and to illustrate the interplay between consciousness of law and an outlaw culture.
The discourse of Yizo Yizo is concerned with social control, mainly of African youth, with a focus on the involvement of youth in crime and violence. An initial impression is created that crime and violence are an African problem that can be explained by appealing to the 'one-size-fits-all' model mentioned above. Yet, in a strange twist, the cinematographic representation of crime in Yizo Yizo points to shared and (un)spoken signifying modalities that run counter to the officially sanctioned ideology of control. For example, images of tsotsi culture, delinquent culture, Mafia culture, and youth militarism are presented--images that figure in black popular imagination as legitimate ways of resisting white hegemony. These images crisscross and rupture categories of legality and illegality. The cinematography brings into view long-standing socio-political and economic problems to which certain sectors of African communities have reacted by establishing modes of survival incorporating forms of criminal behaviour. At the same time, the script tends to operate within conventional theoretical paradigms, so that while it follows one orbit, the cinematic images speak of a different world, animated by local specificities that have shaped its psychologies. In many instances these psychologies have existed alongside mainstream culture.
I argue that the crime situation reveals that the present crisis is an outcome of shared criminal culpability spanning centuries in a racially divided South Africa, where the white, dominant world and the black, marginalised one have remained culturally mutually exclusive. My argument is in accord with Diana Gordon's (2006) view that the seeds of our criminogenetic past were sown at the beginning of the colonial period, and produced fruit such as the tot system, land theft and the destruction of indigenous cultures. All of these, whilst viewed as non-criminal by the colonial mainstream community and the colonial administration, in fact laid the foundations of the criminal culture which now prevails in many black communities. Injustices to which Africans were long subjected have produced a culture of retribution accompanied by a diminished respect for the law. Gordon's views imply that Western law, since its inception, has never been perceived by black people as an apparatus for dispensing justice in an equitable manner, and that post-apartheid crime and violence are the result of centuries of unjust discrimination entrenched and enforced by law.
The colonially rooted causes of Africans' criminal lifestyles and their responses to them underpin cinematographic representations in the world of Yizo Yizo. For example, the effects of land dispossession are depicted in the abnormally crowded housing conditions which Africans were compelled to accept, or which they resorted to in order to circumvent racially based residential policies. These images form a background against which harrowing details of black lives are recreated. Daveyton, the setting for the series, is a poverty-stricken and sprawling African township in Gauteng. Like numerous other African townships, it is a product of the 1913 Land Act, the Group Areas Act and other segregationist policies. Although the effects of these laws were felt most keenly during the apartheid period, because of the routine use of coercion, the policies themselves evolved during the era of colonial rule (Welsh 1971).
Linked to the rise of the racialised capitalist economy was the evolution of the migrant labour system. The movement of multitudes of Africans from traditional villages to urban slums, shanty towns, townships or compounds proved to be deeply damaging to social and family cohesion. Bhekiziwe Peterson (2000), commenting on the deleterious effects of the migrant system, points out that Father Huss, a Trappist Father stationed at Mariannhill, wrote a series of articles in the early twentieth century describing the impact of industrialisation and urbanisation on African households. One significant institution that was seriously damaged was the African family, in both its traditional and Christian forms. This contention is supported by Mamphela Ramphele (1992:19-20), whose studies of African families at the dawn of the twentieth century reveal how the migrant labour system weakened African families through poverty, overcrowding, and a sense of worthlessness experienced by some adults. Migrant labour resulted in parents being separated from their children and youngsters being swallowed up by the cities.
Yizo Yizo provides this historical background through its use of Daveyton as a setting and through its depiction of the life experiences of young people bereft of parental authority. The historical background as depicted in the film is crucial to an understanding of African urban settlement and also explains the absence of the white world and whiteness from the film, the effect of which is to create the impression that crime is an African problem and in particular a problem of African youth. This 'take', involving as it does the exclusion of certain social orders (Fuery 2000) and the portrayal of crime as a black aberration in the post-apartheid era, appears to be rooted in a sense of political betrayal by the ANC. This once-heroic liberation movement has engendered disillusionment and apathy in South Africa. The post-apartheid social order appears to have veered towards a middle-class outlook--on crime, as on other matters. Still, despite the middle-class yardstick in terms of which crime seems to be judged in Yizo Yizo, the film is energised by shocking revelations of post-apartheid realities as they affect young people. The depiction of these realities has been successful in ruffling consciences regarding the multitudes of black youth whose lives were disrupted in the service of the armed struggle and who were then re-marginalised after the democratic dispensation was inaugurated.
This re-marginalisation has also generated concern as to who should assume responsibility for the state of African youth. After the 1994 political revolution young people were excluded from the rush to self-enrichment by those in the higher political echelons, whose wealth now gives rise to the phrase 'black diamond'. At the same time, politicians, anxious to divert attention from their own failings, blamed white middle class South Africa for its support for apartheid policies designed to keep the majority of Africans undereducated and underskilled. The truth is that no proper acknowledgement of the roots of our social ills has occurred, nor has there been a recognition that the current political leadership has failed the country.
As for the issue of many Africans' scant respect for the law--a theme prominent in Yizo Yizo--a key point to bear in mind is that colonial policies of interference with Africans to extract from them total obedience to the British and Dutch laws had some unforeseen effects: they gave rise to a mistrust of the white man's laws and to the conviction that they should be subverted whenever and wherever possible. This is a plausible explanation of Africans' tendency to political insurgencies, labour unrest and religious cynicism. David Coplan (1985) and Tim Couzens (1985) point out that it was during periods of widespread social disaffection that the Industrial and Commercial Workers Union (ICU) gained popularity, that separatist churches sprang up and that the gang culture, the amalaita, which evolved into tsotsi culture, emerged in the 1920s. Throughout the twentieth century the tsotsi culture was ambivalent: on the one hand its criminal activities were geared towards self-aggrandisement; on the other, a strong political consciousness pervaded most of its criminal operations. By 1994, this counterculture was entrenched and had extended systems which appealed to vast numbers of people, blurring divisions between law-abiding citizens and outlaws. The transfer of power to an African government in 1994 did not wean criminally-minded people from their contempt for the law or their willingness to flout it with impunity.
The currents noted above--youth marginalisation, diminished respect for the law, crime as a way of life--are dramatised in Yizo Yizo, but selectively. For example, the television series seeks to valorise a mainstream attitude to crime and lawlessness while choosing not to investigate too closely the hierarchies of social power.
The setting for much of the action is Supatsela High School, at once a container for large numbers of marginalised, forgotten youth and an arena for valorising and inculcating conventional 'middle-class' attitudes to crime and lawlessness. The school is portrayed as having a representative status as a site for the dramatisation of social ills on the one hand and, on the other, for the testing of individual and collective responsibility.
The spotlight in Yizo Yizo often falls on the criminal career of Zakes, who practices a Robin Hood kind of banditry, seen as the logical outcome of marginalisation and social deprivation. Zakes's influence over Thiza, his younger brother, who is still attending Supatsela High, contrasts sharply with their grandmother's influence. Thiza's brief spell with Chester and his gang attests to the hold the gangster lifestyle has over him because of the influence of his elder brother. Thiza's experience reflects that of not a few African youth: their attraction to criminality, and their dependence on criminal earnings for their daily survival. For his part, Zakes is presented as a 'good' gangster: most of his criminal activities are portrayed as survival strategies necessary for his family and community. The film allows his criminal lifestyle to be read as a product of historical conditions and long spells of deprivation. The implications of such a reading are rejected by Holland, who remarks that "South Africa's crime crisis represents indulgence of behaviour that ought not to be tolerated on the grounds of a violent past, former suffering, poverty, fatherlessness or anything else that perpetuates it". She adds that the post-apartheid aftermath has produced a "psychopathic society where hardly anybody takes responsibility for anything" (2010: 12).
Despite being a 'good' gangster, Zakes's criminal behaviour is problematic --first, because it represents a pernicious temptation for his younger brother and other youths and, second, because even though Zakes possesses a certain level of self-reflection, his behaviour has the potential to become chaotic and ruthless. Another character, Chester, and his gang actually embody that possibility and represent the most extreme aspects of the outlaw culture and the attraction it holds for school-going youth. Chester and his criminal associates' relationship with the younger generation, especially parentless and homeless youngsters such as Bobo and Sticks, speaks of the re-marginalisation experienced by youth in the post-apartheid period. Both these youngsters are moral castaways and social pariahs: Bobo's misogyny in episode one (my discussion will return to this later), his veneration of the underworld, as well as Sticks' delinquency and rebelliousness, are all indications of alienation, while their vacillation between gangster culture and youth militancy (episode thirteen) bespeaks an aspiration to experience a home life and a sense of belonging. On a deeper level, their position as parentless children points to social disintegration. Bobo's dilemma is evident from the scene (episode one) where he is torn between life as a drug peddler and going to school. His refusal to be Chester's drug pusher earns him a humiliating baptism in the toilet. His vacillation between drug addiction and a yearning to be a 'better' person, splashing out money on fast cars, beautiful 'babes' and expensive food, blurs his perception of what constitutes a worthy lifestyle. Thus, while Bobo is part of Java's group of morally upright boys who vow never to commit crime, his background as an AIDS orphan reduces his choices, as he is not subject to the moral authority a parent would have provided.
Similar observations can be made in relation to Sticks, a teenager enmeshed in a delinquent culture. According to Albert Cohen (1955) delinquency is a collective, immediate and practical solution to structurally imposed problems (cited in Widdicombe and Wooffitt 1995: 15). In the South African context, the exclusion of Africans from the mainstream political economy intensified from the beginning of the twentieth century. Amongst the majority of Africans, whose presence in the cities had been criminalised by discriminatory legislation, an immediate response, especially among working class youth, was the formation of a gang culture. Yizo Yizo alludes to this culture through the character of Sticks, and Chester's gang whose activities dramatise the harrowing findings of Segal et al. (2001) dealing with youth subcultures: their desensitisation to violence, their self-consciously fashioned criminal careers; their materialism and indifference to the consequences of crime.
The gang's attitude to women in the series reflects shifting attitudes that have come to define modern African gender relations. The colonial reconfiguration of African gender relations along European lines at the beginning of the nineteenth century contributed to an erosion of respect for African womanhood (Comaroff and Comaroff 1997) and by the post-apartheid period, at the time of Yizo Yizo's production, the position of African women had worsened. During the rapid urbanisation of the twentieth century, labour in major industries was reserved for males and the women's supporting activities were denounced and criminalised. The presence of women in urban areas gave rise to survival behaviours or what Grace Musila (2009) terms "gynocratic transgressions" that were soon to alienate and disempower them in the racist political economy of South Africa. Official pronouncements and non-official declarations by the African elite and traditionalists were laden with moralising denunciation:
... it may be said that as a rule the male native does not give rise to any difficulty ... The real difficulty centres around the native woman, who is the root of most location disturbances. Where she is a woman not in permanent service or living with her husband ... her main occupation is immorality and liquor selling. (1925 Pienaar Commission's Report, cited Cobley 1997: 100)
Such "phallocratic anxieties" (Musila 2009) significantly contributed to twisted perceptions of African women in the cities. Colonial patterns of paternal authority over Africans resonated with African traditional paternalism towards women as infantilised members of society. By the post-apartheid period, with the collapse of most forms of adult authority in African society, misogynistic discourses became commonplace, with some males drawing freely on "phallocratic grammars" of power in an endeavour to silence all women, including women in positions of responsibility.
Bobo's misogynist discourse, Chester and the gang's stance on their female school mates and the history teacher Ken's sexually predatory behaviour towards schoolgirls underscores this attitude. Papa Action's demeanour towards Louisa provides another example. In two of Louisa's infrequent teaching sessions, Papa Action flies a paper plane with sexually loaded inscriptions at her: "I want to have you for breakfast, lunch and supper" to which she replies: "Some filthy ghetto rat is dreaming. I say to you, you better wake up and go relieve yourself in the toilet", a recommendation on which Papa Action menacingly acts (episode three). Much later in the series (episode eight), when the gang has established itself, Papa Action suddenly jumps on top of the desks and forces everyone to sing, claiming in the process that they have to respect him. He then takes a girl by force, intending to rape her. Brandishing a condom at the helpless Louisa, he menacingly asks her if she wants it too. He nearly succeeds in raping her, but Thulas, the militarised youth, saves her. Papa Action's tyranny outside the classroom, from his disruption of the netball game (episode three), to the disruption of classes because of party preparations (episode six), his rape of Dudu in the chicken coop (episode seven) while Chester crows, claiming that Dudu should die because of her sins, is part of a pattern of behaviour that exemplifies the gang's disregard for social codes. They see women and women's bodies as sites where male power is enacted, objects and commodities to be consumed by males for their sexual pleasure and for the re-affirmation of lost African manhood.
Another disturbing result of colonial gender reconfigurations takes the form of (sometimes illegal) sexual relationships across the generation gap. The liaison between Hazel and Sonnyboy, the sugar-daddy taxi driver, dramatises this issue within the context of the precarious socio-economic situation of many of the minors involved. While pre-colonial Africa sanctioned relationships between older men and younger women, there were cultural safeguards against women's sexual exploitation. With the damage caused to African cultures chiefly by industrialisation and urbanisation, certain cultural prohibitions fell away and by degrees women fell prey to sexual exploitation through prostitution, economic dependency, and unsanctioned cohabitation practices. By the 1980s transactional relationships had became common. Among the regulations that the apartheid government relaxed in a bid to co-opt the black middle class were those governing permit procurement in the Taxi Industry. This resulted in a sudden boom of minibus taxis operated by males many of whom dropped out of school because of the general instability in the schools during this decade. The easy money made by ferrying passengers created an impression that taxi drivers and owners were loaded with cash and this proved to be a magnet for schoolgirls (Mabena 1996). Their liaisons with taxi-drivers outraged most adults in the community. However, the socio-economic situation of many of the girls involved in these relationships ensured their continuance. Yizo Yizo's treatment of this topic is significant for highlighting the persistence of such liaisons and for showing how it remains an alluring alternative for girls, just as gangsterism does for boys.
Yizo Yizo depicts this reality through an exploration of girls' subcultures. It also throws into relief the influential role played by such liaisons within the context of girls' quests for youthful experience. Girls' sub-cultural formations, according to Steve Duck (1983) and Peter Kutnick (1988), are based on trust, loyalty and the confiding of secrets and problems. Although there are positive elements in such friendship formations, they are apt to be marred by jealousy, conflict and emotional tension, as Orbach and Eichenbaum (1987) point out. In Yizo Yizo, these tendencies in girls' subcultural formations are explored within the politics of family structures. The polarities are between Nomsa and Hazel: on Hazel's side is Mantwa, a girl experienced in the ways of the world and Dudu, an innocent dreamer. As in the case of some of the boys, the parents and family backgrounds of Mantwa and Dudu are not represented, even at the times of Hazel's and Dudu's rape crises. Hazel represents the phenomenon of children as heads of households, susceptible to abuse and exploitation, as is the case with her sister Snowy and later herself, when she is abused by her sugar daddy, Sonnyboy, the taxi driver. Hazel's relationship with Sonnyboy lays bare one of the most devastating aspects of girls' sub-cultures: such relationships do not emancipate them from the prescribed roles of women in the society, but locate them somewhere between prostitution and dependency on an adult male.
Hazel's relationship with Sonnyboy acts as a peg on which to hang the narrative of girls' private yearnings and public manifestations of their aspirations for the future, their love lives, disappointments, fears and moments of triumph. The relationship also exposes the deficiencies in their perceptions of males, romantic relationships, sexuality, and, more generally, Western affluence. Whilst Nomsa holds views that are consistent with social morality, Mantwa, Dudu, and, to a lesser extent, Hazel, foreground young black females' vulnerability to exploitation.
Hazel's story demonstrates two aspects of the world of girls attracted to the sugar-daddy culture: their deludedness in expecting respectful treatment from sugar daddies who provide materially for them, and their failure to perceive the moral objections to such relationships. Before her rape, Hazel is dropped at school and collected after school, eats at restaurants (episode four) and is taken shopping for clothes (episode five). These attentions presuppose that she understands the nature of the sugar daddy game, and what is expected of her in return for all the gifts showered on her (episode four). However, her private recollections, which she confides to Mantwa, indicate that she and Sonnyboy do not share a common understanding. Hers is a girlish delusion, and so when boys of her age and stage in life approach her, she dismisses them because, like Thiza, they lack material possessions and glamour (episode five). When Sonnyboy demands sex from her in return for all the gifts he has given to her, she is not ready for a sexual relationship. Her resolve to abstain from sex becomes stronger after her rape, when she grows closer to Thiza. His humble position elicits feelings of mutual respect unconnected to material motives; this is far removed from the attitude of the gang members who refer to her contemptuously as "is'theshana" (a girl of no consequence) or "le nto" (this thing).
Hazel's liaison opens a window onto the fantasy lives of girls like Dudu and Mantwa, and onto the latter's reckless pursuit of her fantasies. The girls' talk in the first episode is about their dream lovers and leisure activities during the vacations, about fashions and parties. Fantasy underpins their view of gangsters, and of delinquency. Hence Mantwa's failure to make a connection between her sexual desire for these anti-social and misogynistic men and the harm they cause to those closest to her. After Dudu's rape, she does not make the link between her sexual yearnings and their implication in Dudu's trauma. Her lusting after Zakes and his possessions (episode twelve) is structurally symmetrical to her lusting after Chester, crystallised in her retort "ngiyamrhalela yazi" (I yearn for him, you know), a statement that carries connotations of sexual devouring. Because of her sound values, Nomsa sees through Chester's glamour, exposing its meretriciousness. But for Mantwa, Chester's baseness holds allure: if he is "rotten", she "must have a bite" (episode one), and this comment links up with her literally taking a bite out of Chester's apple later on (episode six). According to Muff Andersson (2004), certain items associated with Chester, such as guns, apples, the BMW convertible and clothes, function on a symbolic level as his identity markers, and sharing these with him lays bare a desire to identify with him. Accordingly, Mantwa's biting of Chester's apple functions in a similar way to Thiza's getting into Chester's BMW or carrying his gun: these actions point to a narrowing of the distance between their values and his.
The militancy displayed by post-apartheid youth in Yizo Yizo descends from historical patterns of resistance. African political radicalism and violent rejoinders to repressive policies constitute a complex area, as there is an overlap between legitimate political resistance and the propensity of such resistance to include violent criminal acts. The portrayal of militarised youth in Yizo Yizo reflects this dual inheritance.
Militarised youth is represented in Yizo Yizo by Thulas and Gunman, who are depicted as a counterpoise to the gangsters and corrupt teachers in the school. But even Thulas and Gunman use excessive violence to bring about change. Their temporary hold over the school is characterised by a degree of unlawfulness that almost brings it down. But their use of violence seems justifiable in view of the brutality of the gangsters and the teachers' unethical attitudes and their relationship with the criminal underworld. The militarised youth present a formidable opposition to the ravages of Chester and Papa Action, and are significant in turning the school around, though their methods are open to question. This is observed in the episode where Papa Action and Chester sexually assault Dudu. Gunman's response to her rape, symbolised by an AK47 tattooed on his head, brings mayhem in its wake, reminiscent of the students' revolt that began with the Soweto Uprising and continued into the eighties. Questionable as his methods are, he is able to evict the corrupt deputy principal and the gangsters from the school, initiating a series of events that ends with Thulas's taking the deputy principal hostage, thereby forcing the district office commissioner to intervene on the side of the community at large.
Following the banishment of Chester's gang from the school, its depredations are visited upon the community, which devises means to apprehend the culprits and hand them over to the police. Chester, who by this time has maimed Zakes, is cornered, stripped naked, paraded in public in the most humiliating way and eventually handed over to the police by the vigilantes. So it is through the initiatives and interventions of the militarised youth that the school community and the community at large are restored to some semblance of normality.
To summarise: the fact that black and white history in South Africa evolved along parallel, but antagonistic, tracks has had profound consequences for the way each group has come to perceive the role and standing of the law. Determined to protect its dominance and privilege through legal enactments, the white group by and large regarded these as lawful, and resistance to these as criminal. Conversely, many, probably most, black people viewed the same enactments as criminal and resistance to them as legitimate, even lawful: "It is not a crime in the way you see it". It follows, then, that in evaluating black criminal behaviour, as well as black attitudes to crime and the law, even in the post-apartheid era, one needs to be cognizant of South Africa's unique history. It is not productive to read the 'crime scene' in South Africa though the lens of a universal theoretical paradigm; a 'one-size-fits-all' approach will not yield a fuller understanding of black people's attitudes to crime and the law. The issue is indeed a fraught and complex one, and not without its contradictions.
Some of these contradictions rise to the surface in Yizo Yizo, a post-apartheid production. While the series's verbal discourse proceeds largely in terms of mainstream 'middle-class' perceptions of crime among black youth, holding that it is essentially a black youth problem amenable to mainstream intervention strategies, the pictorial discourse on occasion tells a rather different story, suggesting that crime among black youth, as well as their attitude both to it and to the law, is, to some degree at least, traceable to the injustices of the apartheid era and, before that, to colonialism's destruction of the African social order.
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|Author:||Mhlambi, Innocentia Jabulisile|
|Publication:||Current Writing: Text and Reception in Southern Africa|
|Article Type:||Critical essay|
|Date:||Jul 1, 2010|
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