Barbara Holtmann Fights Urban Violence ‘The South African Way’


Public safety and security especially of women are hot button issues in South Africa. The country is estimated to have the highest number of rape incidents per capita in the world, and ranks second in terms of murders per capita.

The issue has been the focus of much attention and public mobilization. The premier Pretoria-based institute, Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR) has been looking at developing tools and interventions to improve public safety standards. The chief anchor of this effort was Dr. Barbara Holtmann who headed its Crime Prevention Research Group for several years.

Holtmann is now a consultant with UN-HABITAT, is closely associated with the Women in Cities International. She is presently working in five continents with groups like the Delhi-based women’s resource centre, Jagori on how to build what she terms as a “safe community of opportunity. She spoke to Pamela Philipose in Delhi recently.

Ms. Holtmann was brought up in Apartheid South Africa where as a white South African she was exposed to every benefit, every opportunity, every protection. As a young adult, she decided what she really wanted to do and it was to give something back to make things better for those who did not have the privileges she had enjoyed. She decided to do that as a survival strategy, not as a philanthropic gesture.

She slowly got more interested in issues of safety, specifically women’s safety. It brought her to the issue of violence- violence as a by-product of unsafe communities and uncaring policies, exclusion, lack of basic services and, most importantly, a lack of opportunity. The idea was to evolve models of community safety and inclusive action arising out of a shared vision of safety.

“We live in unsafe places; places of fragile, failing social systems. The only way to address this is to think of transforming communities into self-sustaining ones with resilient social systems.”-Ms. Holtmann

In 1994, when the Apartheid government of South Africa gave way to multi-racial democracy, nobody understood just how fragile South Africa was. Prior to 1994, violence was institutionalised in many communities. A lot of that was political violence. There were domestic violence and inter-personal violence, arising from deeply-rooted depression.

Communities that had a history of conflict or the kind of brutalisation that came with apartheid, created dependencies on substances like alcohol. In South Africa today, the alcohol problem is extreme. The Africans spend almost as much on alcohol that they make on tourism. A late 2008 study showed that out of every 100 consumer Rands spent 16 were spent on alcohol.

Consuming alcohol was politicised under apartheid, like everything else. Alcohol was not legally allowed to be sold in black townships. So this typically gave birth to a huge illegal alcohol industry which continues to exist. In a very big township outside Pretoria, with about a million people, there are about 950 illegal alcohol outlets. This means high levels of domestic and inter-personal violence.

When you have firearms, many fights that would otherwise go unnoticed end up as murders. One of the biggest ways in which domestic violence manifests itself is in the use of guns in a threatening way. So it is not actually about the discharge of firearms or the intention to discharge a firearm. It is about the presence of firearms making domestic violence possible. Domestic violence is overwhelmingly a male offence. I learnt a few years ago from an NGO in Cape Town that there are about 35,000 victims of domestic violence every year.

As the walls of apartheid came down, the walls in the white enclaves went up. The country spends 50 billion rand a year on private security. To put that in context, it earns about 48 billion through tourism.

“So we are spending more on security than we are making on tourism. Security of that kind is a reactive measure that hasn’t worked. Generally speaking, if something is expensive and it fails, the rational approach would be to discard it. But when it comes to private security, people are so driven by their fear that they just want more and more of the same.”-Ms. Holtmann

People everywhere want the same things, no matter who they are and where they live. They want their children to play safely in a park, they want women to walk at night, they want schools free of violence. That is why, there’s a need to work for the transformation of the whole community, and to enable transformation, the community must engage the voices of the most vulnerable.

One of the basic principles of her work is that if you make everybody useful, you create an opportunity for everybody to live their best lives. One of the by-products of that will be a reduction in the crime and violence.

Public safety has become a huge issue in South Africa. But crime and violence have been political footballs and they have been addressed almost entirely in terms of “law and order.” Public safety is never seen in terms of better sanitation or livelihood generation.

“I believe that if communities are empowered through the respectful engagement of what they can contribute, we will be able to address the issue of public safety for all, including women. It’s a long term process, but it is certainly worth embarking on.-Ms. Holtmann

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