Just a month after the South African government started releasing inmates due to the presidential pardon two months ago, at least 43 are back in jail.

A report distributed yesterday, June 12, by SAPA quoted the Department of Correctional Services (DCS) saying it was already in custody of a fraction of the former inmates it began releasing in “controllable groups” on May 14.

A policeman searches suspects in Hillbrow. PICTURE: Siphiwe Sibeko/Reuters/Sidney Morning Herald

The government plans to release up to 35,000 inmates this year as part of a special remission announced by President Zuma during Freedom Day celebrations on April 27.

The government said part of the reason for releasing the inmates was to decongest the country’s prisons, while other reports said it was to mark Nobel Peace Prize winner Nelson Mandela winning South Africa’s first all-race elections in 1994.

Spotlight on crime

While the DCS did not reveal the number of prisoners released within the first month, the fact that at least 43 of the former inmates have already been re-arrested once casts the spotlight on the crime situation in the country.

Studies on the crime rate in South Africa show it has dropped marginally from a time when the country had the highest per capita rates of murder and rape, the second highest rate of robbery and violent theft and the fourth highest rates of serious assault and sexual offences among the 110 whose crime levels are tracked by Interpol. However, the crime rates remain high.

South Africa's crime statistics ahead of the 2010 World Cup. IMAGE by Japan Probe

So numerous are crime incidences even today that criminality seems to have become a part of the daily routine. Today, only the most outrageous of crimes reach the table of national discourse.

Outrage over rape

In April, when a video surfaced of the gang rape of a Soweto teenager, it was widely condemned due to the despicable nature of not just the multiple rapes of the mentally-illvictim, but of the fact that the rapists had the audacity to record and circulate a video of their actions.

The chief executive of Proudly South Africa, Leslie Sedibe, asked a poignant question, “What have we become when children rape children and we as fellow South Africans stand by and watch something so evil, cruel, callous and inhumane? Even watching such a video after the fact is atrocious and abominable.”

Yet crime is not the only social issue that the country seems not to have opted to face head-on and eliminate. Several others continue to blight the national conscience but seem to have been swept under the carpet.

Racism clouds debate

Early this year, the Democratic Alliance Student Organisation (DASO) published several posters of semi-naked couples in embrace, with the words beside them reading, “In our future, you wouldn’t look twice”. The pictures caused a storm merely because they depicted a white and black couple.

One of the controversial DASO images

With many people not eager to discuss racism, debate on many significant issues in the country is often derailed by claims of racism, as happened when the ANC Secretary General Gwede Mantashe described “The Spear” art-piece by Brett Murray as racist.
That label forced Murray to defend himself in an affidavit against accusations of racism, galvanised followers of the ANC into demonstrations that were interpreted as a form of bullying, and diverted the national conversation from the issues to a subject few people are really comfortable talking about.

Silence on HIV/AIDS

Similarly, South Africa has failed to curb the spread of the HIV/AIDS virus because of a deep-seated fear to confront the issue and peel off the layers of secrecy enveloping it.

More than five years after the first president of independent South Africa Nelson Mandela first revealed that his son Makgatho died of AIDS, and more than a decade after Judge Edwin Cameron announced his status, the stigma surrounding those who suffer from AIDS remains so high that the family of a famous footballer, Thabang Lebese, initially tried to hide the cause of his death even though he’d wanted it to be known.

By sweeping many of these taboo subjects under the carpet, South Africa is likely to be prolonging public discussion on problems that can only be overcome when the nation confronts them and seeks solutions in the open.