Tuesday, June 30, 2009

An illustration that urban places can be lawless, too

"Constant Fear and Mob Rule in South African Slum" is the headline of a story by Barry Bearak in today's New York Times. Here's an excerpt describing the urban slum of Diepsloot, north of Johannesburg, and what is happening there.

Crime in South Africa is commonly portrayed as an onslaught against the wealthy, but it is the poor who are most vulnerable: poor people conveniently accessible to poor criminals.

* * *

To spend time in Diepsloot over three weeks is to observe the unrelenting fear so common among the urban poor.

* * *

In Diepsloot, people usually bear their losses in silence, their misfortune unreported and their offenders unknown. If a suspect is identified, victims usually inform quasi-legal vigilante groups or hire their own thugs to recover their property.
Remarkably, while Diepsloot's population is estimated at 150,000, the nearest police station is 10 miles away. As in rural places, then, physical spatiality separates people from police protection, fueling the need to resort to self help. (Is this why the NRA is associated with rural America?)

I am reminded of a comment by Aravind Adiga in an NPR interview. Speaking about India--which like South Africa features a vast gulf between the impoverished rural and the sophisticated urban, with the latter also marked by slums--Adiga observed that vast differences in wealth are more common in cities than in rural areas. These differences are also more apparent in cites, which may be why crime rates are higher in places like Diepsloot than in the nation's pockets of rural poverty and squalor.

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