Murder of a reggae star sparks reflection in South Africa

Lucky Dube's death, in an apparent carjacking, has become an emotional tipping point in the crime-ridden country.

He was a man like any other, a 40-something father gunned down while dropping off his teenaged children at a relative's house. But the murder of reggae star Lucky Dube last Thursday, in an apparent carjacking attempt, has forced South Africa's President Thabo Mbeki to make a statement.

Mr. Mbeki, who was traveling to Paris to watch South Africa's rugby team in the World Cup finals, said that South Africans must commit to "act together" to confront "this terrible scourge of crime, which has taken the lives of too many of our people – and does so every day."

At an emotional mourning service here Wednesday, where fans, musicians, and politicians rubbed elbows in a nightclub, Zwelinzima Vavi, a top trade union leader, said that Dube's death should be a wake-up call for South Africans. "This atrocity highlights the grim reality of the daily carnage on our streets, the main victims of which are working people and the poor," said Mr. Vavi.

In a country with some 19,000 murders a year, the killing of Lucky Dube has struck a chord in South African society as a sign of how bad crime has become. Perhaps it was Dube's character – a gentle preacher of racial tolerance and peace – that made the crime all the more senseless. Certainly, fame played a factor, since Dube's murder sent shock waves across Africa and into the Caribbean, where Dube's performances alongside Seal and Céline Dion, clear voice, and earnest lyrics made him an international star.

Dube's 25-year career was built in a spirit of protest, first against the white-led apartheid government, and later against more universal issues of war, discrimination, and crime. While many South Africans moved away from Dube's reggae style – at the time of his death, he was more popular outside South Africa than in – the singer's status and struggle credentials has remained intact.

Just as hurricane Katrina triggered anger over government negligence in Louisiana, Dube's murder has become an emotional tipping point among South Africans concerned over crime.

"The death of Lucky Dube is tragic, but there are 19,000 murders in South Africa, 19,000 tragedies, and this just reinforces the message that crime is out of control," says Prof. Ivor Chipkin, a senior researcher in social cohesion at the Human Sciences Research Council in Tshwane, formerly known as Pretoria.

South Africa has one of the highest violent crime rates in the world. The government repeatedly points out that many categories of crime are actually going down – murder, for instance, has dropped 41 percent since the end of apartheid in 1994 – but violent armed robbery, like the carjacking of Dube, is rising.

As with many issues in South Africa, crime is inevitably tinged with the legacy of race relations. Most victims are black, but the recent attention on crime is driven by the fact that the white middle class – once protected by a white police force – has increasingly become a target.

But Mr. Chipkin says that argument can work both ways. "But what Lucky Dube's murder does is remind us that the people being murdered are overwhelmingly black, overwhelmingly male, and overwhelmingly young, ages 15 to 34. This is not just a perverse phenomenon of alarmism," he adds.

Dube's murder has tempered the ebullient mood of South Africans after their victory Saturday night in the World Cup Rugby finals against perennial rival England. For every newspaper headline heralding the heroic Springboks, there was another mourning the loss of Dube, and bemoaning the ineffectiveness of the police to keep crime in check.

The public mood turned uglier when the four accused were brought to court Wednesday. While friends of Dube sobbed quietly, other fans jeered as the alleged killers covered their heads, entering and exiting the courtroom.

Unlike other high-profile murders, this one is harder to shake off as "European negativity toward South Africa," says Tim Cohen, an editor at The Weekender, a Johannesburg newspaper. "Lucky Dube is a real embarrassment because he's so popular in areas of Africa and the Caribbean where they (the government) want to be esteemed."

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