An astonishing new book by two UCT criminology experts says that, contrary to public perception, South Africa’s murder rate has halved since 1994.
A Citizen’s Guide to Crime Trends in South Africa also suggests that while South Africa remains in the world’s top-20 countries in terms of national murder rate, it by no means is the highest.
The country’s rate of 33 per 100 000 people is some way behind that of Honduras, which comes in at 84 per 100 000 people.
However, authors Anine Kriegler, an Observatory resident, and Mark Shaw, of Newlands, have also found through their extensive, year-long research that while Cape Town is recognised as the country’s murder capital, the city’s rate over the 2014/15 reporting period is in fact more than double that of Johannesburg, long considered one of the most violent metropolitan areas on the planet.
This is in keeping with the latest SAPS crime statistics, which show that Johannesburg’s murder rate matches the national rate at about 33 per 100 000.
Though this latter statistic is obvious cause for concern, the authors say that while South Africa is still a very violent country by global standards, “there is every reason to believe that it is far less so than it was 20 years ago”.
“How is it that this huge reduction in fatal violence over the last two decades isn’t something we rejoice over, talk about or even seem to be aware of as a nation? This is one of the most dramatic and unequivocal features in the history of South African crime, and no one seems to have paid it much attention,” writes the authors.
Ms Kriegler, 29, a doctoral candidate in criminology, explained that the book is an extended version of a short descriptive guide drawn up by the Centre of Criminology last year in response to queries from journalists and others about the annual SAPS crime statistics.
The initial guide included statistics dating back to 1994, but the authors then took a decision to collate all available data dating back to 1911, drawing on figures from the SAPS, Statistics South Africa, the Institute for Security Studies as well as mortuary figures.
“We really thought it was important for everyday South Africans to understand the crime statistics and separate fact from what is being said in the public discourse,” Ms Kriegler said.
“Politicians and other interest groups have an interest in shaping the crime statistics, so we have sought to show what the situation really is.”
She said what had been established was that violent crime was, to a large extent, driven by inequality in socio-economic circumstances.
“You find the same situation arising in new democracies around the world. Wherever there is inequality, you find this happening. In South Africa, the only way to fix this is to have a huge scale, nationwide programme to create jobs, and create job access by legitimate means.”
The researchers purposefully spent a lot of time on murder statistics, as, unlike other crimes like house robbery and sexual assault, corroboration of murder could be obtained from numerous sources.
“In addition to the fact that murders are much more frequently reported to the SAPS, South Africa has a strict death registration system. So we were able to verify murder statistics through Stats SA and mortuaries,” Ms Kriegler said.
With the authors having gone back more than a century in their research, a very poignant picture has been painted of points when spikes in the murder rate occurred in South Africa.
Noting that the then South African Police operated as a political mechanism of the apartheid state’s repressive regime and consequently paid very little attention to recording actual crime, the authors identified four phases in the old South Africa’s murder rate:
* Modernisation, which brought about a steady increase to the 1950s. “The total urban population more than quadrupled in size in 40 years. This meant the radical reorganisation of structures of authority, gender, family, space and values for countless South Africans.”
* Dislocation, which saw murder rates rise to high levels dramatically from the mid-1950s, levelling out at these levels a decade later. Because of forced removals, entire social networks were destroyed, while people were forced into overcrowded and insecure conditions.
* Repression, from 1965 to 1980. The murder rate, although high, remained steady as the apartheid government shored up its policies through policing mechanisms.
The authors also state that policing for a large proportion of the population was officially designated to the Bantustan (homeland) authorities.
* Political disintegration from the 1980s to the early 1990s. Protest and political action against the apartheid regime in its final days saw an upsurge in murder.
What is interesting, however, is that although the perception is that political instability was solely responsible for the massive spike, the best estimates are that only between 15 and 20 percent of murders in 1993 had a political motive.
“Yes, there was political violence, but in this atmosphere it occurs that ordinary violence becomes normalised, and filters through to all aspects of society,” Ms Kriegler said.
At a local level, Ms Kriegler and Mr Shaw have also brought some interesting findings to the fore.
They have established, for example, that there are some parts of South African cities that have murder rates on par with some of the safest places in the world.
“Murder rates in suburbs like Rondebosch in Cape Town and Rosebank in Johannesburg would cause no concern if they were found in cities in Western Europe or Canada.
“The safest parts of South Africa are as safe as anywhere in the world. There just aren’t many of them and very few people live in them.
“Large areas of South African cities have rates of violence that are definitely very high by the standards of most cities in the developed world, but not all of them and not exceptionally so.”
The researchers have also highlighted another interesting trend at local level – crime type levels according to economic circumstances.
“In Cape Town, the two top precincts for murder rate are Philippi East and Nyanga (in densely populated townships with large-scale poverty and informality); the top two by residential burglary are Claremont and Camps Bay (wealthy suburbs); and the top two by aggravated robbery are Cape Town Central and Parow (large business districts).”