Collective safety should trump individual liberties until the bloodshed ends, writes Murray Williams.

Cape Town - On Wednesday, Page 1 of the Cape Argus screamed: “Schoolboy’s throat slit”. The schoolboy was attacked near a high school in Somerset West and was taken to hospital where he apparently received 18 stitches plus six internal stitches.

The attack sent shivers down that community’s collective spine. The anger in the air was thick as a gas.

The neighbourhood watch urged: “Please alert your children and ask them to walk together and to report anything suspicious – or any suspicious characters.”

Many would agree with this. But some would not. Some would feel uncomfortable. For several reasons.

First, the memory of the hated “dompas”. A man could be walking quietly along a street in most South African towns, minding his own business, could be arrested without any proven permission to be there.

Second, many will argue that racial stereotyping still makes victims of innocent citizens because “they’re the wrong colour in the wrong place”.

And, third, race issues aside, there are those who will argue that people should be allowed to walk where they please, without having to offer an explanation to anyone.

All three reasons are valid.

But they should not be allowed to prevail. Here’s why.

Every street across South Africa is indeed a public space where every citizen has the right to roam, without being accountable to a soul, by way of constitutionally guaranteed individual liberties.

But since the dawn of democracy, individual rights have always been balanced against the rights of the collective.

And right here, right now in South Africa, this collective remains under dire threat.

Some say South Africans are “under siege”. Some say that’s an exaggeration. Either way, this country has more violent crime per capita than most places on Earth.

And crime doesn’t happen “to a country”, it happens within actual places, within communities.

Yet almost everywhere criminals strike with impunity. Therefore, any suggestion that communities should not be allowed to scrutinise the traffic on their streets displays a profound misunderstanding of the philosophy of democracy. They are permitted to, and they should.

No, no one whose guilt has not been proven may be assaulted or abused.

But if community members, neighbourhood watches or street committees want to watch or follow them, bad luck.

If strangers are persistently asked unwelcome questions, then bad luck.

If community members want to actively alert their neighbours to strangers in their midst, bad luck.

If community members want to escort them or photograph them, bad luck.

If every step they take is tracked by a dozen set of eyes, young and old, human or digital, then bad luck.

And if some of those eyes appear threatening, then bad luck too. It’s probably not hate in their eyes, but anxiety, adrenalin, raw fear.

South African communities of every colour have for far, far too long allowed themselves to be bullied, terrified and terrorised by a minority of bad people. In every community, the majority is being held to ransom.

It needn’t be so. Enough now. Many communities were galvanised into action under apartheid. They should be encouraged to do so now again.

And if individual liberties are perceived to suffer, that’s a small price to pay. Until the bloodshed ends.

Misguided, wanton thuggery, racism or xenophobia can never be tolerated in the fight against crime. Equally, neither can communities be denied the right to peacefully and vigilantly protect themselves.

* Murray Williams’s column Shooting from the Lip appears in the Cape Argus every Friday. Follow him on Twitter: @mwdeadline

Cape Argus