SA suffering an “extraordinary criminal onslaught” –, 7 November 2014

Nov 07, 2014
A report released by the IRR this week tracks crime, violence, policing, and justice trends for South Africa on an international, national, and provincial level over the past 20 years. It makes for a sober read about a country whose people confront an extraordinary criminal onslaught.

International comparative data shows that South Africa’s murder rates are 10-20 times higher than places such as Australia, the United Kingdom, Israel, Italy, and India. Even compared to the relatively violent United States, our murder rate is five times higher. Focusing on murder, South Africans live with an extraordinary degree of violence.

Perhaps the most shocking figure of all is that since 1994 the body count, because that is what it is, stands at 409 937 people murdered. That is enough to fill the Newlands rugby stadium 10 times over. Every day just short of 50 South Africans are murdered.

In total, the period since 1994 has seen 14.4 million serious and violent crimes reported to the police.

There is one positive that comes out of the crime data. Most crime categories peaked in the period 2002 to 2003 and then began a slow retreat, suggesting that South Africa might have turned a corner when it comes to criminal attacks against its people. However, even that small positive must be balanced by the fact that crimes such as armed house and business robberies – arguably the crimes that are feared the most – have more than doubled over the past decade. Even murder, which was in steady decline after 1994, has turned upwards over the past two years.

When the analysis is brought down to a provincial level the data is full of surprises. If murder rate is the yardstick then the Eastern Cape, not Gauteng, is the most violent province in the country. In fact, in descending order, Gauteng comes in sixth position behind the Eastern Cape, Western Cape, Northern Cape, KwaZulu-Natal, and Free State. However, if the armed robbery rate is the benchmark then Gauteng finds itself at the top of the danger rankings closely followed by the Western Cape. Sometimes it is the poorer parts of the country that have fairly low levels of certain types of violent crime. In Limpopo, for example, the armed robbery rate is almost only a quarter of that in Gauteng.

These levels of violence occur despite significant resources invested in security and policing. South Africa’s police to population ratio is comparable to countries such as the United States while the private security industry now employs almost three times as many people as the police (they employed roughly the same number in 1997). There is a clear trend of middle class households turning to the private security industry to protect them although for this huge investment they remain very much at risk. We surmise, although there is little data to prove it, that on the other side of the socio-economic spectrum the poor have often turned to vigilantism to protect themselves from violent crime. Both the rich and the poor have therefore lost faith in the police and turned to the best remedies they can afford to safeguard their communities.

Together the police and security industry jointly arrest 1.4 million South Africans (or one in every 40 people) for serious crimes every year. If you assume that adults are mainly arrested, that ratio becomes one in 20. Yet in 2013/2014 only 1 in 5 of these arrests resulted in a conviction, down from 1 in 3 ten years ago. The trend seems to be of mass arrests, short periods of detention, and that arrested persons are then released either due to insufficient prosecutorial resources or insufficient evidence against arrested persons. Despite this low conviction rate, and two mass release programmes, the prison population has increased by 30% since 1996 with one in every 350 people in the country being in jail in 2014. Prisons still demonstrate significant levels of overcrowding.

South Africa’s socio-economic demands for welfare and free services, together with its weak economic performance, mean that there are no more resources to invest in policing, prosecutions, and prisons. Hence the only policing or criminal justice solution to our crime crisis is the better deployment of the resources already available. That means an end to affirmative action, the re-instilling of military discipline, the political backing to catch and fire corrupt officers, the establishment of a university educated officer corps to lead the police, breaking the police into nine separate provincial forces, and allowing communities to elect station commanders during local government elections. Match that with top flight forensics and a much stronger prosecutorial capacity together with some creative sentencing policies and the tide may just be turned. Being able to mobilise three times as many ‘boots on the ground’ as the police, and having absorbed many of the police’s top experts and detectives, the private sector will have an important role to play here and they should be encouraged, by enabling policy, to play that role

Frans Cronje is CEO of the IRR. He holds a PHD in scenario planning from NWU and served with the South African police, worked as a horse-riding instructor and a logger in the US, and completed a year-long expedition that crossed the African continent from Cape Town to Cairo. He joined the IRR in 2004 and established its Centre For Risk Analysis. He is an associate of the Centre for Innovative Leadership – a leading South Africa based scenario consultancy and the author of A Time Traveller’s Guide To Our Next Ten Years (Tafelberg 2014). His work has been widely cited in the media from the Volksblad to the Wall Street Journal. He writes a column for Rapport newspaper and is a regular contributor to Classic Business on Classic FM.

*On demand our Centre for Risk Analysis can supply precinct level crime data to its Premium users.

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