South Africa

SA crime statistics: Sunny with a chance of murder

By Khadija Patel 20 September 2013

The South African Police Services attempted to provide a rather sunny interpretation of this year’s crime statistics. And while there certainly is some light, the figures reveal, once again, the grip violent crime has on South Africa. By KHADIJA PATEL.

Police Minister Nathi Mthethwa released South Africa’s 2012/13 national crime statistics on Thursday, exerting effort to place the statistics in the context of positive gains made in the fight against crime in the last ten years. While contact crimes were reduced by 4,2% in the last year, for the first time in at least eight years there has been an increase in key serious, violent crimes, among them murder.

Incidents of murder increased by 650 cases (16,259), a 4,2% jump, while attempted murder rates increased by 6,5% (16,363) in the past year.

Mthethwa noted that the spike in murders came in the wake of a “constant reduction” in the last nine years. Attempted murder showed a similar upward trend, also against a general decline in previous years.

“We’ve seen a reversal in the downward trend of murder,” explained Chandre Gould, a Senior Research Fellow in the Governance Crime and Justice Division at the Institute for Security Studies (ISS).

Gould said that there had been a spike in violent crimes for the first time in more than eight years.

“The types of violent crimes that are likely to make South Africans feel frightened and insecure have increased. Home robberies have also seen an increase, as well as business robberies,” she said.

Mthethwa, however, failed to provide a detailed outline of what the drivers of the higher murder rate were this year.

“We don’t know what’s driving [the increase in murder statistics] but we do know that some of the things that are up will be guiding the murder rate, for example, home robbery can be expected to drive the murder rate slightly,” said Gould.

She added that the format in which the statistics were released left many questions unanswered.

“We’d like to be able to know what the drivers of murder are. But we’d also like to know why it is that while we see murder and attempted murder going up, we see a very different picture if we look at assault and serious assault, which doesn’t seem to make sense,” Gould said.

Murder remains an important indicator of the level of criminality in South Africa. It is the most accurate of all crime categories, and is also seen to be a gauge of the stability of a country.

As such, these statistics are the first to be released under Police Commissioner Riah Phiyega’s stewardship and are an initial evaluation of her leadership of the country’s police. They are also an appraisal of President Jacob Zuma’s decision to appoint her to the post.

Phiyega insists that the SAPS are fighting crime efficiently in the country.

“There is no doubt in my mind that the crime situation is under control,” she said on Thursday.

However, Democratic Alliance spokesperson on safety and security, Dianne Kohler Barnard, disagrees.

“We have had three civilians now running the SAPS,” she said. “One ended up in jail, one is still facing criminal charges and the third one now…murder has gone up.”

Kohler Barnard added that police morale was also at an all time low.

The ISS said that although these numbers, particularly murder statistics, may alarm some South Africans, police were not necessarily to blame.

Sexual offences rates decreased marginally by 0,4% but analysts say these statistics are not reliable given the very low rate of reporting of these crimes.

“Statistics are a little bit of a necessary evil,” said Professor Bonita Meyersfield, founder of Lawyers Against Abuse. “They give us a benchmark, a reflection of what is happening very broadly, but the reality is that the benchmark is a picture of whether or not government intervention is being effective.”

Gould, in turn, said the statistics reflected poorly on government interventions in relation to the high levels of sexual violence in the country.

“What it does tell us is that anything we are doing to address rape and sexual offences isn’t working very well yet,” she said.

Meyersfield cautioned that there were two possible interpretations for the drop in sexual crimes in the last year. “The first is that there has been a decrease in sexual violence, the second is that there’s been a decrease in the reporting of sexual violence,” she said.

She added that the statistics released by the SAPS on Thursday pointed to a decrease in the reporting of sexual crimes.

“The fact that there is a decrease in reporting could mean one of two things: As I said before, it could mean that there was a decrease in the actual circumstances of sexual violence. Or it could mean that victims and survivors feel that there is no point in reporting. Or, even more perniciously, that there is some danger in reporting,” Meyersfield said.

She cautioned against premature speculation on the basis of this trend.

“I think when you’re looking at statistics what you really need to do is determine what the possible reasons may be for the reporting of sexual violence crimes and continue to assess the decrease and determine whether or not it is due to the policies the government has imposed,” she said.

Gould, however, said that the statistics ought to be an opportunity to assess the efficacy of the country’s broader crime-prevention strategies.

“I think what’s really important to highlight here is that we can’t expect the police to bring down murder and we can’t expect the police to bring down rape,” she said. “These are crimes for which we need quite long term and focused crime-prevention programmes run by somebody other than the police.”

Police, she added, could not change social attitudes or the factors that drive violence in communities, homes, streets and neighbourhoods.

“The police can and should respond effectively when a crime is reported but we really need as a country to develop a detailed crime prevention strategy which we don’t have right now.”

The release of crime statistics focuses attention on police at a time when public trust in the SAPS is dangerously low. However, Gould believes this focus is misplaced.

Gould said that the ISS would like to see crime statistics released on a monthly basis and proposed also that these be compiled by an independent body rather than the SAPS.

She added, “I would argue that violence is the most serious and pressing problem that South Africa faces right now.” DM

Read more:

  • A guide to crime statistics in South Africa: what you need to know at Africa Check

Photo: A man walks through a field of crosses erected near Pretoria, July 28, 2003. (Reuters)

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