There was a noticeable disconnect between the manner in which top police officials presented the country’s most recent crime statistics, and the impressions that strike you if you give the figures a long, hard, look. Despite the ‘glass half-full’ approach adopted by Police Commissioner Riah Phiyega, the reality is that most categories of crime are on the rise in most provinces. By REBECCA DAVIS.
Let’s start with one of the most misleading aspects of the way in which Police Commissioner Riah Phiyega presented South Africa’s crime statistics for the period between April 2014 and March 2015. Phiyega framed murder, for instance, as registering a percentage decrease of 4,6%. She accompanied it with a bar graph showing a lower level than the previous year.
If you are a reasonable person, you might assume this to mean that the murder rate has dropped by 4,6%. But it hasn’t. It has increased by 4,6%. What Phiyega was presenting was the fact that the crime increase of 4.6% is less than last year’s increase of 5%. What this obscures is that in real terms, there have been more murders than during the 2013 to 2014 period. There were 17,023 murders in 2013/2014, and there were 17,805 between 2014/2015.
It takes a concerted effort to make more than 48 murders per day look positive, but this appeared to be what Phiyega was straining for. In reality, there’s very little to celebrate about South Africa’s criminal landscape. Levels of crime in 16 out of 27 criminal categories rose, and this includes all the most serious classes – murder, aggravated robbery, carjacking, etc – except sexual offences (more on that in a second).
Truck hijackings have increased by almost 30%. Incidents of residential robbery – as opposition politicians say, arguably one of the most feared forms of crime – grew to 20,281 last year. Drug-related crime is up.
What are called ‘contact crimes’ – where a person is injured or threatened with injury – have increased in five out of nine provinces. ‘Contact-related crimes’ – defined in this useful Africa Check guide as “violent crimes committed against property with the intention of causing damage to a person, for example arson” have increased in six out of nine provinces, as has ‘property-related’ crime: crime that occurs in the absence of a person (eg theft from an unattended vehicle).
This is bleak stuff, but it seemed to be presented to Parliament in a way aimed at making everything seem rosier than it was. Figures are consistently compared with the situation a decade ago, with any general crime decreases over a 10-year period taken as evidence that police are getting it right – even if the year-on-year stats tell a different story. Police Minister Nathi Nhleko was insistent that this longitudinal view was “quite necessary” in order to “track how much progress we are making”.
There was also a self-congratulatory air around the fact that police made 1,707,654 arrests last year, but this figure is almost entirely meaningless unless we know how many convictions resulted from these arrests.
When Nhleko was questioned on this by journalists, his response was: “The conviction rate itself … does not necessarily resolve the social problem. And that’s my argument. The production point is society itself. And we need to deal with that.” Focusing on convictions, he suggested, was a narrow view.
Another frustrating aspect for the average South African trying to make sense of the statistics is the fact that crimes are lumped together in vague categories. We still have no idea how many people were raped last year, because all we are given is a number for “total sexual offences” (53,617 cases). We have no idea how prevalent domestic violence is based on these statistics, because it is not disaggregated from “assault with the intent to inflict grievous bodily harm”, or even attempted murder.
The Institute for Security Studies’ (ISS’s) Chandre Gould pointed out to the police officials that gender nongovernmental organisations (NGOs) constantly bemoaned the lack of specific data in this regard which would help tackle violence against women. Phiyega responded that it would be possible to share rape figures “if there is any special interest”. It is fair to say that there is special interest. Phiyega also said, however, that it was necessary for the purposes of comparison to follow international protocol for crime classification.
A further complication was voiced by a member of Parliament’s police committee, Freedom Front Plus MP Pieter Groenewald, who described how his MP accommodation at Acacia Park in Cape Town had been burgled and the police had subsequently categorised this as “damage to state property”. His point was that there is clearly some degree of imprecision – or at least ambiguity – as to how crimes are classified.
“Acacia Park is state property,” responded Nhleko; though he did concede that perhaps a topic for discussion could be how to “refine the manner in which we capture these incidents”.
Even the apparent good news may not be good news. There has been a recorded decrease in total sexual offences, for instance: cases are down 5,4% from last year. Nhleko and Phiyega trumpeted this as evidence that the war against gender-based violence is being won, but there are reasons for scepticism.
The first is the known phenomenon of under-reporting, with some researchers estimating that as few as one in nine (or even fewer) rapes are reported to police, due to a multitude of factors (shame, fear of being disbelieved, fear of secondary victimisation at the hands of the police, fear of reprisals from the attacker, etc).
The second reason for scepticism is that it seems counter-intuitive that all other forms of violent crime (murder, attempted murder, assault, etc) would have risen, but sexual offences would uniquely have decreased.
The third is that the police proudly announced that cases of sexual offences detected as a result of police action – as opposed to someone walking into a police station and reporting them – have increased by a mammoth 34,3%, from 4,720 such cases in 2014 to 6,340 cases in 2015.
Nhleko’s explanation for the reduction in reports of sexual offences was that a “number of factors” were attributable. One was that it was a “social consciousness issue”, because so many NGOs and government programmes are currently dedicated to conscientising the public about sexual violence. Another was that the specialised police units set up to tackle rape – the Family Violence, Child Protection and Sexual Offences Units were clearly succeeding.
A less optimistic explanation for why fewer sexual offences are being reported, as noted by the Democratic Alliance’s Dianne Kohler Barnard, is that members of the public are losing faith in the police’s ability to do anything about it.
There were a number of slightly curious aspects to the presentation of this year’s crime stats. One was the emphasis placed on the role of foreign nationals in committing crime. Phiyega noted that as a result of Operation Fiela and other crackdowns, there are 682 foreign nationals with prior convictions awaiting trial, and 852 without prior convictions.
While obviously far from ideal, these figures are a drop in the ocean. To give a sense of perspective, 686 police were also arrested for some form of crime last year. Yet Phiyega found it necessary to specify, earlier in her presentation, that there are 61,162 “naturalised foreign nationals” in possession of 90,083 firearms in South Africa. She did not provide breakdowns of gun ownership among any other ethnic groups. Inkatha Freedom Party MP Albert Mncwango asked why South Africa was issuing firearm licences to foreigners at all.
Emphasis was also placed on service delivery protests as a “major driver of crime”, even though the vast majority are peaceful: 2,289 protests were classified as violent out of over 14,000 last year. It’s undoubtedly true that policing protests consumes resources. There has previously been controversy over what the police class as protests, however, due to the fact that increases in protests are used to justify increases in riot police, armoured vehicles and other means of cracking down on dissent against the state.
Even for the most cynical among us, this year’s crime stats can’t be said to be all negative. There have been decreases of reported cases in certain crime categories: the ISS has compiled some useful infographics here. Two positive aspects around the reporting of the statistics were the collaboration with Statistics South Africa to endorse the methodology, and the fact that the stats were presented to Parliament before the media for the first time.
But on the basis of this year’s stats, those trying to persuade us that South African crime is under control have their work cut out for them. DM
Factsheet: South Africa’s 2014/25 property crime statistics, on AfricaCheck