When a graphic BBC video of police brutality was broadcast on national television here, a host of human rights observers and newspaper columnists labeled the footage "horrific" and "shocking."
But sociologists say the public reaction that followed is even more disturbing.
Radio talk shows and the national police complaints commission have heard overwhelmingly from people who are outraged: not at seeing white policemen beat a semiconscious black man with rifle butts, but at news that 11 officers have been suspended.
Many people went so far as to "applaud" the police, and one man said he "enjoyed the pictures immensely." The local BBC received death threats.
The response is a telling sign of just how revolted by crime South African society has become, says Elrena van der Spuy at the Criminology Institute in Cape Town. "It's worrying. People have a real need now for retribution."
Amid the furor, authorities are grappling with the central questions: Why is crime on the rise in post-apartheid South Africa? And what can be done to stop it?
The most popular answer to the latter query seems to be: Take revenge.
While police in the BBC video were white - and their most vocal defenders are also white - Ms. Van der Spuy points out that the desire for retribution against crime cuts across race lines.
All but one major opposition party is campaigning for the country's second democratic election this June with promises to return the death penalty, banned in 1995. A poll published April 28 found the idea gets support from 91 percent of whites and 68 percent of blacks.
Stanley Mogoba, leader of the hard-line Pan Africanist Congress, proposes that convicts face loss of a limb as punishment. Meanwhile, vigilante groups are gaining favor in black townships: One posse was recently filmed rounding up and whipping rape suspects.
"It is a response to the overwhelming level of crime," says psychologist Annemarie Novello at a Johannesburg trauma center. "People feel powerless, defenseless."
Crime climbed dramatically during the late 1980s, when the fight against apartheid led to intensified political violence. But it didn't stop with the arrival of democracy in 1994.
"Violent crime certainly has gone up in the new order ... in both suburbs and townships," says Mark Shaw, who analyzes the trends for the Ministry of Safety and Security.
In the first four years, reported rapes soared by 23 percent. Violent assaults went up 13 percent, while car hijackings also rose. Murder has settled at the rate of 50 killings per 100,000 people - seven times higher than the US murder rate.
But Rob Marsh is one of many crime analysts who say get-tough measures will not get to the root of the problem.
"It might make us all feel better," Mr. Marsh, author of two crime books, recently told SABC radio listeners. "But essentially that's treating the symptom." To solve the problem, he said, the cause must be understood.
First, the tumultuous transition to democracy allowed criminals to exploit a general weakening in state structures. Countries in Eastern Europe experienced a similar "explosion of crime" after the Berlin Wall came down in 1989, notes Greg Mills at the South Africa Institute of International Affairs in Johannesburg. "Repressive governments keep a lid on societal grievances," he says. "A dramatic change blows the lid off the pressure cooker and all the problems spill over."
WHAT makes South Africa different is the severity of violent crime - which Mr. Shaw, the safety analyst, links directly to the "profound" degree of inequality.
More than half of South Africans live below the poverty line, and the jobless rate hovers at a stifling 30 percent. Meanwhile, apartheid produced legions of undereducated young men who grew up in a lawless environment. They still have easy access to firearms - menacing leftovers of the armed struggle.
More than half of 7,188 accused criminals (largely males under 25) interviewed by a research team in South African bail courts were unemployed. Even so, analyst Ted Leggett says most young thugs are not seeking to feed families as much as they are seeking status.
"With democracy, they expected an improvement in their economic lives that hasn't occurred," says Mr. Leggett, an American former Colorado police officer and editor of the Durban-based Crime and Conflict magazine.
"Since there is little chance for them to succeed in the mainstream - by getting a job - young men are looking for other ways to prove their manhood. They hijack cars or steal TVs to acquire status. They prove their daring by committing acts of violence."
Although blacks are statistically more likely to be victims of crime, many whites are feeling the threat for the first time. "Safety and security" is the most oft-cited reason for emigrating - which South Africans have been doing at a rate of nearly 10,000 a year since 1994.
Analysts agree that, in part, fighting crime will require improved policing: That means training and disciplining a force that was previously mandated to oppress, not protect.
The government has established a detective academy to teach basic investigative skills and promote a human rights culture. Police managers say the BBC video has also shown them their officers need support in facing huge psychological stresses: More than 1,000 officers have been killed since 1994.
"The cause of crime is to do with haves and have-nots," says author Marsh. "We have to solve some social problems before we can solve the crime problem."