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Research Project: This is dangerous property: Crime and the social life of things in South Africa

Brandaan Huiges

Property crime currently takes epidemic proportions in South Africa. Yet, what is at the heart of this crises? Research has largely overlooked a dimension of the post-apartheid crime wave: particular  objects that are found in homes, lure criminals. These homes are plundered.

Little is known of how citizens, perpetrators, the state and various other actors, relate to the objects that become stolen property, and indeed, why particular objects are targeted in the first place. An ethnography of seemingly mundane objects kept inside residents’ homes is important considering that they motivate vicious interpersonal violence, the privatisation and securitisation of life, the urban sprawl facing cities, the wariness felt amongst citizens and an overstretched police service. The theft of property from homes consequently defines the material margins of illegality, precariousness, identity negotiations and how the state is experienced and imagined in post-apartheid South Africa.

This research project posits that property crime should be understood from a social and cultural perspective. This is owing to the increasing need of South Africans since apartheid, and with the onset of neoliberalism, to express their identities through material objects. In a country where the distribution of property is highly unequal, certain objects are obsessively sought after, creating an illicit market for them. Thus, property crime coincides with the increasing desire of South Africans and residents of neighbouring countries to express their identities through fashionable objects, especially those that signify electronic modernity and hierarchy; digital objects and heirlooms such as smartphones, flatscreen televisions, iPads and jewellery, often feature in home robberies or burglaries.

A long term ethnography of objects in residents’ homes will be initiated in Kraaifontein, a town that has amalgamated with metropolitan Cape Town. A multi-sited research design will be utilised, focussing on Kraaifontein’s disparate and diverse neighbourhoods. Apart from interviewing residents at their homes and photographing their interiors and objects, court appearances, community meetings, policing forums and prisons will be visited. Neighbourhood watches will be attended. Archival information on stolen goods will be collected at the local magistrate court and police station. A host of other actors, such as insurers, shop owners, security engineers and architects, will also be interviewed to determine how the objects are targeted and ‘travel’ once they have been dislodged from their homes and enter new cultural geographies of use and value.

The completion of this project will help to understand the relationship between the sociocultural significance of objects and criminal activity, and the various effects thereof. In this way, it will assist state actors and residents to make sense of property crime. Preventative measures can also be instigated by residents themselves, where the responsibility does not solely lie with the state in securing safety. For example, by knowing that certain objects pose a threat to their owners, strategies of not owning sought-after objects could reduce the risk of potentially becoming a target of criminals. Although, as this project posits, it is precisely that certain objects are desired by residents themselves — the general ‘market’ — that property crime is so prevalent in South Africa.