South Africa

2018/19 Victims of Crime Survey

The big difference between people’s experience of crime and the official record

The big difference between people’s experience of crime and the official record
Community members in Bishop Lavis gather around a crime scene, 2 February 2019. Photo: Leila Dougan

If there’s one take-away from the 2018/19 Victims of Crime Survey released by Statistics South Africa on Thursday, it is the disjunction between people’s experience of crime, what is reported to the police and what ultimately makes its way into the official record. The gap is often significant.

Looking at what South African households told Statistics South Africa about their experience of housebreaking is perhaps the most straightforward illustration of the gap between experience of crime and the official police record.

The 2018/19 Victims of Crime Survey noted 1,354,196 incidents of housebreaking affecting 969,567 households across South Africa.

About 44.4% of households reported their experiences of housebreaking to police, who would have recorded it as “burglary at residential premises”. With another 3.8% having reported some of their housebreaking experience to police, Statistics SA points out that at least 467,599 households would have officially reported housebreakings.

But the SAPS crime statistics show only 220,865 officially recorded housebreaking cases for the 2018/19 financial year.

So what happened?

It could be police dissuade people from officially opening a case. It could be people believe they reported the crime because they went to a police station, even if no paperwork was ever completed. It could be that an entry into the station’s occurrence book was taken as having reported the crime, even if this entry never translated into an actual case docket being opened.

Police have been accused of underreporting and skewing the statistics as there is pressure to reduce crime,” policing analyst Eldred de Klerk told Daily Maverick. “Anecdotally, police often ask whether a case is made just for insurance purposes. Or they tell complainants ‘there’s nothing we can do about this’.”

Serious questions must be asked, said De Klerk, also pointing to the educative role police have, such as informing people to safely store serial numbers and photos of goods.

But housebreaking numbers are not the only ones seemingly at odds.

On home robbery, or robbery at residential premises in SAPS jargon, the 2018/19 Victims of Crime Survey shows 264,054 incidents at 183,998 households. With 60% reporting levels, this should have led to an official crime statistic of 110,203 cases of home robbery. But the latest SAPS crime statistics reflect just 22,451 cases.

Similarly, theft of a motorcar. The survey shows 68,030 households were affected with some losing more than one vehicle, given the total of 82,867 incidents. With official reporting levels at 86% — no doubt linked to car insurance levels — SAPS crime statistics reflect only 48,437 complaints, which also include motorcycles.

These reporting levels are significantly higher than in cases of street robbery and theft of personal property. Only about one in three victims of such crime actually report this to police — even as the theft of personal property affects 1,014,698 people older than 16, according to Statistics South Africa.

The survey shows 1,241,122 incidents of theft of personal property, and a total of 581,438 incidents of street robbery affecting 451,512 people.

These numbers make it clear households, and individuals, often are repeat victims of crime. And that perhaps is a key contributor to people not feeling safe.

Urban South Africans’ feelings of safety are directly linked to the time of day: at night 40.9% of men and 45.5% of women feel very unsafe. In rural areas slightly more residents feel safer.

As in previous surveys, it emerges that people look after themselves. Burglar bars are installed in 30.8% of households, while 20.9 % say they limit their walking to “safe hours”, or even have stopped using public transport (0.1%) and 12.7% say they no longer walk alone. Weapons are also a choice: guns (2.5%), knives/screwdrivers (0.8%) or pepper spray (1.7%), according to the 2018/19 Victims of Crime survey.

On Thursday, Statistician-General Risenga Maluleke limited his commentary to the numbers, even when asked whether the statistics were of concern.

If we as statisticians attach emotions to the work we do… we influence the work. The numbers are there. The public must digest them.”

But this time round, the Victims of Crime Survey stopped short of identifying reasons why South Africans feel unsafe, or why on average only half of crimes are reported to the SAPS.

Those questions would be asked in the next survey in 2020/21, it emerged during Thursday’s media briefing. Previous surveys showed a lack of faith in the police, and their ability to do their jobs.

According to the 2017/18 Victims of Crime Survey, 34.4% cited as a reason that police “never responded on time”, while 6.5% cited police “co-operate with criminals” as a reason for not reporting a crime. And 10.5% said “(police) are corrupt”, with 10.5% saying “they are lazy”, up from 4.9% and 4.1% respectively just a year earlier. The 2016/17 Victims of Crime Survey showed that on average six out of 10 victims of crime said police would not or could not do anything as the reason for not reporting a crime.

This could be an indication of lack of confidence in the police, and follows the same pattern as the previous survey where 58% of households gave the same reason for not reporting housebreaking to the police,” said this 2016/17 survey, adding:

The majority (62%) said that the reason they did not report theft of personal property to the police was police could not do or won’t do anything”.

Effectively, such attitudes mean that whatever is produced by the SAPS as the official crime statistics is not necessarily an accurate reflection of the state of crime in South Africa. The exception would be murder — because of its nature it is 100% recorded.

While the 2018/19 Victims of Crime Survey has sought answers to questions such as, “why do you feel unsafe?”, the 2018/19 SAPS Annual Crime Report, in its crime statistics addendum, presents some curious narrative and analysis.

On contact crimes such as murder and assault, on page 15:

It has been established that contact crimes are frequently generated by, amongst other causes, the excessive consumption of liquor and drugs, gang-related violence, domestic violence, mob justice or vigilantism, taxi violence, illegal mining and organised crime…

Among the mentioned causative factors several have been identified that not only affect the safety and well-being of the residents of South Africa, but also its economy and internationally project an image of a violent state.”

Or on domestic violence, according to page 39:

Domestic feuds between spouses, partners, siblings or relatives turns [sic] deadly if an assault gets out of hand. There are also instances in which the victims in such relationship [sic] would try to defend themselves against their attackers with a weapon such as a knife and kill their attackers. In a number of cases of [sic] the perpetrators demonstrate extreme anger which can manifest in the infliction of multiple wounds, for example a case in which a father stabbed the mother of his children twelve times in front of the children…”

Or on burglary at residential premises, or housebreaking, according to page 141:

(I)t is difficult to establish the specific time when the burglary occurred. These crimes are normally discovered when the owner or inhabitants return home from work or holidays or when they wake up, victims also give tentative times at which they think the crimes were committed…

In the majority of incidents, it was found that more than one item was taken during a single incident. The items commonly taken were items that can easily be bartered on the illegal markets for cash; such as computer equipment, television sets, electronic appliances and equipment.”

Yes, really.

But the SAPS crime report also indicates details of where and when crimes take place, including provincial twists. While housebreaking takes place mostly between Wednesday and Saturdays — murders and assaults tend to happen between late Friday nights to early Sunday mornings — in the Western Cape and Gauteng, Friday is the preferred break-in day, as against Saturday in the Eastern Cape. It seems in Gauteng and KwaZulu-Natal burglars prefer between 6am and 8.59am and again after 9pm, while burglars in Mpumalanga and the Free State prefer to operate after 9pm.

The point is, the official information is there — and should guide police preventative action like patrols in both suburbs and informal settlements. Police could play a key role in safety education — the 2018/19 Victims of Crime Survey showed 19% of households indicated they did not know what to do to improve their safety.

Reducing crime levels has been a much stated, but ultimately still unrealised, target going back to the Thabo Mbeki presidency. In his June 2019 State of the Nation Address, President Cyril Ramaphosa announced the crime rate would be slashed by half over the next decade.

The 2018/19 Victims of Crime Survey shows a distinct and significant gap between the experience of crime, reporting it and the official police statistics.

It remains to be seen whether the political pressure to cut crime will be achieved by further manipulating numbers of recorded cases — or whether crime is reduced by real policing that puts community safety front and centre by a professional police service.

For now, the takeout from the 2018/19 Statistics South Africa Victims of Crime Survey and SAPS crime stats is this: Mind the gap! DM

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