‘I know I’m sinning, but it’s for my kids’ – hunger and poverty driving the spike in shoplifting in SA
A single mother with three children - aged three, five and nine - from Bishop Lavis is unemployed and had been shoplifting for six months. Every time she enters a store to steal, she says a prayer and tells herself, ‘If I have to be arrested for stealing food for my kids, so be it’.
A typical day for *Christiana used to start at 6.30am when she would prepare bread for two of her three children to eat at school.
Between 9 and 10am she would go to a Shoprite or Pick n Pay to suss out what she could steal to make for her children’s lunch when they returned home. This would include eggs, cheese, tuna or noodles.
She would also keep an eye out for anything she could steal to sell, to make money to buy other necessities including nappies.
Her shoplifting didn’t end there. At about 4 pm, she’d return to steal something for the pot and make sure that there was enough food for the next morning — usually frozen chicken, meat or boerewors and rice.
There is nothing to eat
Christiana is one of 6,001 shoplifters arrested across South Africa between 2021 and 27 June 2023 who were referred, via court processes, to the National Institute for Crime Prevention and Reintegration of Offenders (Nicro) to be placed in intervention programmes. Nirco’s aim is to curb the rising numbers of shoplifters in South Africa and rehabilitate them back into society. But it’s proving to be a battle against inflation and poverty.
Using Nicro’s data and SAPS statistics, Daily Maverick tracked down and interviewed shoplifters. Those we spoke to are typically backyard dwellers who live in extreme poverty.
Daily Maverick ventured into impoverished communities, which included Bishop Lavis, Hanover Park and Atlantis.
Another single mother of two children aged two and 14, *Mandy, from Hanover Park, is also unemployed and lives in a Wendy house, in a friend’s backyard. She’s been shoplifting for nearly two years and has been arrested three times, but that hasn’t stopped her.
“There is a strong desire in our neighbourhood to steal food, diapers, and meat. We are a group of fifteen female shoplifters. Food and diapers are some of the most important items to all of us, but if we can’t get our hands on them, we take anything, sell it, and then buy diapers and food.
“I shoplifted because there is nothing to eat in my home. It is not nice to get up in the morning and to hear your children say ‘Mammie, waar is ons kos? (Mom, where is our food)?” Mandy tells Daily Maverick.
Crimes of necessity
Magda Reynolds Western Cape area manager for Nicro said: “Most of the items stolen by shoplifters are food and I would definitely say that unemployment and poverty plays a part in this.”
Lizette Lancaster, Crime Hub Manager at the Institute for Security Studies (ISS) Pretoria, stated that shoplifting often goes unreported, and SAPS responds solely to recorded instances and open cases. The drivers of the increase in shoplifting, she added, could be structural poverty and equity, general food security and double-digit food inflation.
Read more in Daily Maverick: Cost-of-living crisis – SA CPI accelerates to 7.1% in March, food inflation at 14-year high
Mervyn Abrahams, programme co-ordinator of the Pietermaritzburg Economic Justice and Dignity Group, concurring with Lancaster reiterated: “When people don’t have any other means to put food on the table, they are going to turn to crime to do that. So it is a direct result actually of the terrible economic situation that South Africa faces itself in.”
Nicro’s stats for the said period and SAPS for the period 1 January 2023 to 31 March 2023 show:
- According to Nicro, 68% of 6,001 shoplifting cases were filed in South African courts between 2021 and 27 June 2023 and individuals under the age of 35 carried out incidents.
- Of those 6,001 reported incidents, 3,387 (56.44%) of the offenders were unemployed.
- Nicro’s internal offender stats (excluding those of SAPS) further revealed that the number of shoplifting cases nationally in 2021 stood at 1,915, increased to 2,718 in 2022, and as of 27 June 2023 stood at 1,368.
- Food theft ranked first in Nicro’s data, with 791 women and 788 men and three LGBTIQA members accounting for a total of 1,582 arrests.
- SAPS crime statistics for 1 January 2023 to 31 March 2023, reveal that shoplifting increased from 10,292 to 12,379 (20.3%). The SAPS numbers do not distinguish between shoplifters sentenced in court and those referred to Nicro for intervention.
- Previous crime statistics showed in 2012/2013 the number of shoplifting was 71,267 over a year. Prior to this 2010-2011 was the highest at 78,326. For 2017/2018 a total of 62,180 shoplifting incidents were reported, in 2018/2019 a total of 60,167 and 2019/2020 a total of 58,883.
Reynolds further underlined that Nicro’s shoplifting statistics only include cases that have been referred to them by courts for intervention.
“Once the offender has successfully completed — meaning that they engaged with the process, demonstrated learning etc — they are deemed compliant and a completion report is sent to court. The court then withdraws the matter against them and they no longer have a criminal record,” Reynolds explains.
The face of the problem
Daily Maverick interviewed at least three shoplifters: one who had already appeared in court and been referred to Nicro, and two who had not yet been apprehended. From these interviews, shoplifters claim to have told magistrates “that they stole from a shop to feed their starving children and they were unemployed”.
This was also emphasised by Katlehong police in February of this year, when they observed a rise in shoplifting among youths and women. According to SAPS, the majority of women were unemployed single mothers and housewives between the ages of 21 and 35.
Katlehong police spokeswoman Constable Sivenkosi Mtwa remarked that the SAPS believed incidents of food being stolen were the result of poverty and unemployment.
At least three retailers’ spokespersons were hesitant to disclose on-the-record information on shoplifting. “Most of the stuff stolen isn’t food,” one stated off the record. It’s stuff that can be resold. Baby formula is huge,” she explained.
Unemployment, high inflation, food prices, and poverty are some of the key causes affecting people’s urge to shoplift in order to feed hungry tummies at home.
South Africa’s unemployment rate rose to 32.9% in the first quarter of 2023 from 32.7% in the last quarter of 2022. One worrying trend is that 85,000 jobs were lost in private households, which would include domestic staff and gardeners.
It gets worse. According to Stats SA, 43.4% of people between the ages of 15 and 34 are unemployed. This is a serious cause for concern, given that this age range makes up a massive proportion of the country’s employable workforce.
The latest Household Affordability Index has revealed that the average price of a household food basket was as much as R5,071.59 in May.
Read more in Daily Maverick: Activists call for waiver on markups of 10 nutritious items after rice, flour and sugar prices spike
Shoplifting’s impact on business
The high shoplifting figures released by both Nicro and the SAPS are nothing new.
“Food inflation will exacerbate this crime. We’ve seen how groups organised robberies and expanded shoplifting syndicates, for example. Crime statistics did not provide us with this information and do not indicate whether it is organised or random,” Lancaster added.
Jacques Moolman, President of the Cape Chamber of Commerce and Industry, indicated that while the Cape Chamber doesn’t have its own specific data on the prevalence of shoplifting, the results of their recent business environment survey point to growing frustration at the negative impacts of crime.
“While violent crime trends hog the headlines, we know that so-called petty theft causes business ‘shrinkage’, and this involves employee theft and external shoplifting.
“A reported increase in shoplifting coincides with continued widespread unemployment and other serious economic strains, all exacerbated by load shedding. It is indeed sobering to note the items listed on the list of most commonly shoplifted items — indicative of people struggling to afford the basic necessities,” said Moolman.
Under the current circumstances, he stated, it is hard not to conclude that that spike in shoplifting is a measure of suffering and desperation among the poor — and a stark reminder that the best weapon against crime is economic growth and access to jobs.
Meanwhile, Mervyn Abrahams of the Pietermaritzburg Economic Justice and Dignity Group, points out there is an international linkage when households’ food insecurity increases — we see an increase in certain types of crime, such as shoplifting, particularly when food is involved.
“It is not just the inflation rate and food inflation. Yes, it is a global and complex problem. Because food has become commodified. We trade in the futures market; we trade the maize that we have not yet planted. So maize has almost become like gold and other foods, it has become commodified and it has become disconnected almost from the right to life,” he said.
National police spokesperson Athlenda Mathe said that in response to the increase in shoplifting, the SAPS is collaborating closely with private securities to nip the problem in the bud.
Mathe added that while there will be police visibility and regular checks, the SAPS cannot be at retail stores every day, and retail security must respond to shoplifting.
Nicro’s efforts to combat shoplifting do not end once the offender has completed his or her rehabilitation programme. They follow up with offenders every three, six months and 12 months to evaluate where they are in the rehabilitation process, what is going on, and what else Nicro can do for them. Last year, 90% of the 2,718 referrals who attended Nicro programmes were not rearrested. DM
*Names have been changed to protect identities.