South African crime fighters could learn from Antanas Mockus, former mayor of Bogota, Colombia – once regarded as the murder capital of the world, writes Borrie la Grange.
Politicians admitting to paying bribes, mime artists poking fun at law-breaking taxi drivers, and “kindly requesting” robbers not to endanger their own lives by carrying guns sounds like crime-fighting strategies from another planet.
But they worked in Colombia, the former murder capital of the world.
Like in South Africa, violent crime was a way of life in the capital, Bogota, until mayor and mathematics professor Antanas Mockus took radical steps and drove the murder rate down from 77 per 100000 people to 22 per 100000.
He did it by instilling a new “citizen culture” during his two terms as mayor, dropping the city’s murder rate to below that of South Africa, which is at 38 people per 100000.
Mockus, who once took to Bogota’s streets in a “supercitizen” superhero outfit, complete with cape, believes South Africa can do the same using similar methods.
“What I see in both countries is a generalised justification of crime because of inequality. There are two distinct problems that you have to attend to: crime and poverty. But a lot of very poor people obey the law. Sometimes academics link the two too easily,” said the former university rector.
During Colombia’s economic slump of 1999, unemployment rose from 6percent to 18percent and the average household income dropped by 30percent — but Bogota’s murder rate dropped that year.
The former mayor, who first took office in 1995, said crime is better fought by applying the law equally to all, and by making all citizens responsible for law enforcement, instead of spending more on policemen and guns.
By appealing to his residents’ culture, morals and sense of justice, he got them to hold each other accountable for their actions in a city in which drug-related and domestic violence were rife.
He set the example after taking office by admitting that he was ashamed that he once bribed a traffic cop. This allowed his constituents to see that he faced the same dilemmas as them. He asked for their forgiveness.
After that, believing that Colombians feared public ridicule more than being fined for breaking road rules, he steadily replaced his 2300 traffic cops with street mime artists, who made fun of traffic offenders. This halved the road-death toll and reduced the numbers of cops who could be bribed.
He also distributed thumbs-up and thumbs-down cards to residents, which they waved at people whose behaviour they did, or did not, approve of.
He encouraged citizens to hold their officials to account at public meetings, and gave them crime statistics monthly — unlike in South Africa, where they are issued once a year and are six months old.
Mockus also exploited cultural beliefs — such as the myth in Colombian jails that if you kill or hurt someone when stealing, the stolen object will bring you bad luck.
This, he says, is “exactly the cultural control instrument that is necessary” here.
Like many others, Mockus says the infrequently released crime statistics in South Africa “reduce accountability” and “show a lack of trust in the public’s maturity”.
Though the policing debate in South Africa revolves around putting more cops on the streets, with heavier weapons, developing countries could divert the money that would cost to education, health and social development and address the root causes of crime.
The DA has repeatedly advocated increasing the size of the police force to 250000 and tough-talking Safety and Security Minister Nathi Mthethwa has called for more heavily armed police “so that they are able to teach those people a lesson — fight fire with fire”.
Mockus’s plans would be cheap to implement.
The former mayor, who was in this country recently to take part in anti-crime workshops facilitated by the Human Sciences Research Council, believes that the more- cops approach won’t work because it fights fear with even more fear and doesn’t change behaviour.
“The traditional discourse of security is about destroying a person’s self-esteem … instead of having positive expectations that try to help people change their lives for the better,” he said.
This belief prompted Mockus to assign social workers to prisons in Bogota to convince muggers not to carry weapons because by doing so they are endangering their own lives.