UNDERSTANDING ‘POINTY FACE’: What is criminology for?
A Country at War with Itself, Antony Altbeker’s book about ‘South Africa’s crisis of crime’, begins with the dramatic story of a robbery in which Altbeker himself was involved. One of the robbers is a man who Altbeker refers to only as ‘Pointy Face’. Beyond the unusual shape of his chin, his high cheekbones and the hardness of his muscles, readers are told nothing about ‘Pointy Face’. He is a man from nowhere, a man with no history, no life before or after the evening he confronted Altbeker and his companion as they sat in a Johannesburg fast-food joint eating steak rolls and slap chips. In the context of recent international debates about the purpose of criminology, this paper asks what criminology is for in a country like South Africa. After reviewing the development of criminology in South Africa over the last 25 years or so, it argues that important questions about why crime – and violent crime in particular – has remained so high in the post-apartheid era have not been either asked or answered. It suggests that an understandable concern with controlling crime more effectively has led to insufficient attention being paid to why it occurs in the first place. In the rush to make sure that ‘Pointy Face’ and people like him are caught, prosecuted and imprisoned, and lives and properties secured against their depredations, few serious attempts have been made to understand where the ‘Pointy Faces’ of contemporary South Africa come from and why they do what they do. The paper ends by suggesting some reasons why criminologists seem to have lost interest in understanding why crime happens and how researchers might begin to respond to this explanatory crisis.
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