South Africa has become synonymous with violent crime -- indeed, the country’s murder rate ranks it among the world’s most dangerous places, along with such nations as Iraq and Colombia.
However, while the frequency of killings remains very high on an absolute basis, the homicide rate in South Africa has actually been steadily falling since 1994 (when Nelson Mandela was elected President, marking the end of the Apartheid era).
According to South African police minister Nathi Mthethwa, the number of murders fell by 6.5 percent over the 12-month period through the end of March 2011 to 15,940, the lowest figure in seventeen years.
For example, about 27,000 murders were recorded in 1995-1996 -- or about three killings every hour.
These continuous reductions in murder indicate that government is succeeding in its effort, Mthethwa told a press conference in Pretoria.
Moreover, crimes such as armed robbery, burglary, assault, arson and car-jackings have also been decreasing, according to government statistics.
Of course, that doesn’t mean South Africa is in anyway safe and peaceful – in fact, the murder rate is about 4.5 times the global average.
Still the decrease is extraordinary, especially when one considers that the country’s population has jumped by 28 percent over the last fifteen years and unemployment remains high with about one-fourth of the workforce without a job. (About half of South African youth are jobless). Also, it is sobering to realize that almost 6 million South Africans are infected with the HIV virus.
“Murder, being the one crime trend that should virtually not be influenced by over- or under- reporting and/or the non- registration of cases, is consequently believed to be the most consistent indicator of increases and decreases in crimes,” said the government’s report.
Dr. Johan Burger, senior researcher at the Crime and Justice Program, Institute for Security Studies (ISS) in Pretoria, South Africa, told International Business Times that there is no one explanation for the decrease in the nation’s murder rate.
“[However], one theory that has a lot of merit is that at the time of political transition [in 1994] South Africa experienced extreme levels of instability and political violence,” he said.
“The situation gradually improved and although instability still manifests in occasional outbreaks of… protests, mob justice and xenophobic violence, the situation is much improved.”
Burger added that one factor that largely contributed to the creation of conditions conducive to crime and violence was the large-scale migration (after 1994) from rural areas into urban areas and from across South Africa's borders -- referred by some as the process of rapid urbanization.
“The towns and cities were not prepared for this and were not able to exert any control or manage the process,” Burger said.
“The result was large numbers of people, mostly unemployed and poor, who settled in and around existing townships in an uncontrolled manner (so-called informal settlements, but mostly nothing more than squatter communities). This process is still continuing, but fortunately not… at the rapid rate that followed the 1994 transition. These informal settlements, because of their socio-economic conditions, became a huge crime-generator and as this process started settling down its contribution to crime also showed a decrease.”
Some analysts suggest that more aggressive policing and “extremely high levels of police visibility” (instituted in 2009 for the general elections and the soccer Confederation Cup and reinforced for last year’s World Cup tournament) may be partially to explain.
In addition, the private security industry -- which is estimated to have twice the manpower of the national police force -- may also be putting a dent in criminal activity.
This has not come without some severe sacrifices from the police forces -- according to reports, about 100 South African policemen are themselves murdered every year.
South Africa’s police chief Bheki Cele told mourners at a recent police funeral: “Your job is to arrest criminals and, if someone makes your job difficult, make sure it is not you that will be killed.”
However, Burger doesn’t but the theory that increased police presence has necessarily pushed down crime rates.
“We know from a wide body of research that police actions have much less impact on interpersonal crimes such as murder, rape and assault than is generally assumed, simply because these crimes happen mostly between people who know each other and within social conditions over which the police have little or no control,” he said.
“I do not believe that more aggressive policing is contributing to a decrease in our murder rate. Aggressive policing may have contributed to a decrease in certain property related crimes (e.g. burglary) and violent property related crime (robbery in all its manifestations), but the downside of this is the increase in the number of complaints against the police, inclusive of criminal acts such as murder, assault, torture, etc and misconduct in general.”
Indeed, some members of the public have criticized the police’s aggressive crackdown on criminals – citing that 566 South African civilians (some of them innocent bystanders) were killed by police last year alone.
Burger also said research indicates that the vast majority of murders (as high as 80 percent) occur in South Africa’s poorer communities -- including most townships and especially the informal settlements.
Interestingly, Burger points out that most murders are not linked to robberies (despite the media’s obsession with robberies that escalate into fatal violence).
”According to a police case docket analysis, approximately 16 percent of murder happens as a result of robbery,” he said.
“Another 65 percent happens as a result of social conditions such as drug and alcohol abuse and various domestic problems; and 19 percent occur because of a variety of other factors/conditions such as gang violence, xenophobic attacks, vigilantism, taxi violence, retaliation, self defense, etc.”
Organized criminal gangs also plague South Africa, however, their activities do not dominate the nation’s landscape of lawlessness, Burger noted.
“There are a large number of criminal gangs operating in South Africa,” he said. “They are organized from the basic gangs who join forces to commit a specific crime to some very sophisticated local and international crime syndicates. [However], when reference is made to 'violent crimes' it should be pointed out that most interpersonal violent crimes (e.g. murder -- 80 percent, assault -- 90 percent, sexual offenses -- 60–70 percent) happen between people that know one another and which have nothing or very little to do with organized crime. Violent crimes associated with the various forms of robbery can, of course, be associated with the activities of organized crime, but it contributes a relatively small percentage to violent crime in general (i.e. for murder, only 16 percent).”
In addition, while South Africa has an active illegal drug trade, Burger cautions it is impossible to quantify if this business leads to many murders.
“I do not believe that it [drug trade] contributes substantially to the murder rate, at least not directly,” he said.
“There are, however, strong indications that the abuse of drugs is a major contributor to murder.”
Meanwhile, the country’s courts are not adequately dealing with the crime problem.
Burger estimates that only about 27 percent of murders are solved, and only 14 percent lead to convictions.
South Africa also does not have the death penalty -- meaning the maximum sentence for a convicted murderer is life imprisonment.
Burger notes that there have been calls for a referendum on instituting capital punishment, but so far the government has resisted such overtures.
“Even if a referendum did vote in favor of the death penalty, the South Africa Constitution would have to be amended to allow for this,” he added.
Despite the relative lack of conviction of murder crimes, South Africa’s prisons are overcrowded. On average, jails in the country are at 137 percent capacity, Burger estimates.
Burger is particularly baffled by how the murder rate has fallen despite the country’s stubbornly high unemployment rate.
“We can only assume that we [South Africans] were less affected by the international economic downturn than the U.S. and most European countries and that the economic situation in South Africa improved over the last year,” he said.
Burger also suggests that the murder and crime rates in other African countries are likely higher than in South Africa -- however, since they don’t report such statistics, it is hard to confirm.
“Many ISS staff regularly travel through Africa and from what they've seen and heard are convinced that the murder rate in many African countries are much higher than South Africa's,” he said.
“This may be among the reasons why they do not release their crime figures.”
One serious crime remains widespread and even increasing in frequency in South Africa – rape. From 2009-2010 to 2010-2011, the number of reported sexual assaults jumped from 55,097 to 56,272 (the actual tally is likely much higher).
“We are mainly concerned about the number of rapes that occur in the country - the number of reported cases of rapes still remains unacceptably high, said Mthethwa.
Mthethwa himself warned that South Africa has a long road to tread before crime can be considered under control.
Victory against crime is now an achievable goal,” he said.
“However, for as long as young children are still under bondage of crime and drugs, for as long as businesses are robbed, for as long as women are abused and raped, for as long as South Africans are mugged and hijacked – none of us must rest.