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16 Jul 2007: ISS Today: South African Crime Statistics 2006/7: The Good And The Bad
16 July 2007

16 July 2007: South African Crime Statistics 2006/7: The Good And The Bad

 

South Africans have just been treated to their yearly dose of statistics seeking to represent the overall picture of crime in the country.  In short, these statistics are a consolidated list of the total number of crimes reported to the police during the past financial year.  As the financial year in South Africa ends in March, the figures necessarily contain information up to the March preceding the period of release. 

 

What is different this year, and should be lauded, is that these crime statistics were released in July, while in the past they were released only in September along with the police`s annual report.  A criticism often levelled at the September release date was that statistics that are six months late was not helpful, given the possibility that trends could have changed in a period of six months.   This year that window has been reduced to three months.  The question remains whether it is possible to release this statistics a lot earlier even or more frequently?  Do the statistics have to be released only on a yearly basis?  My sense is that it could help if the statistics were available more frequently --quarterly, for example.  

 

The frequency of the statistics aside, this year`s figures revealed that, overall, crime has decreased by 2.6% in comparison with the previous year.  Although it has to be considered good news if crime decreases, enthusiasm has to be qualified once one looks at the numbers of specific categories of crime.   Crimes such as murder, robbery with aggravating circumstances, burglary at residential premises, and robbery in residential areas, have shown an increase.   These crimes are singled out because most of them have shown good reporting rates in the past.  The significance of this is that if these are crimes that are well-reported, they probably provide a more reliable picture of what the overall level of crime is at a given time.   The broad point to be made, therefore, is that the decrease in crime in the past financial year is not reflected in well-reported crimes.  This becomes clearer if one looks at increases in carjacking, truckjacking and all forms of robbery. 

 

There are two issues that I would like to pursue: contact crime and the role of communities.

 

Contact Crime

 

There can be no doubt that South Africans are most afraid of offences that relate to contact crime.  These would be crimes such as murder, rape and robbery.    The good news in this category is limited, in that only that certain lesser crimes such as assault, attempted murder and common robbery, have decreased.   I consciously ignore rape which has decreased by 4.2%, as the reporting of rape may be misleading as an indicator of the frequency of this offence and, as a result, its decrease or increase should be treated with caution.  As most people in the criminal justice sector would advise, a statistical decrease in the reported incidence of rape is not necessarily a cause for celebration, for this may simply reflect a drop in reporting.  This, however, is to raise issues that must be debated at another time.

 

The point is this:  the South African Police Service (SAPS) has identified contact crime as a serious problem  and that this country has high levels of this crime.  I agree with that diagnosis; but what is the medicine prescribed by the SAPS?   “The Government consequently decided in January 2004 that each of the contact crimes should be reduced by 7-10%  per annum…. the targets were established on the basis of broad comparisons with the crime ratios recorded by the other INTERPOL member countries….”  (page 2 of the report).    I think this is an unrealistic target if the expectation is that the SAPS should achieve such a reduction.  It is noted that in the quotation that it is Government that set the target and not the SAPS or the Ministry of Safety and Security. The SAPS cannot achieve this at all.   One needs only look at the 2007 report to see the reason for this conclusion:  82% of murders and 76% of rapes involve people who know each other and occur in situations virtually impossible to police.    Even if for these reasons alone, it would be unrealistic for South Africans to expect the SAPS to reduce these types of crime. A long-term solution, I would argue, lies in dealing with the attitudes and behaviour of South Africans by applying crime prevention measures at early stages of development.  This would call for specific interventions by departments such as those of Education and Social Welfare.   What is disturbing, however, is the language used by the SAPS in this report. On page 3 of the report, for some reason, they berate certain analysts for saying that South Africa`s murder rate is “eight times higher than that of other countries”.  Yet, they themselves set a target of 7-10% every year over ten years for the reduction of contact crime (including murder).    This seems to constitute a fundamental contradiction in the report itself, and would suggest that the criticism of the analysts is misplaced. 

 

Role of Communities

 

The Minister of Safety and Security, as well as some of his provincial counterparts, have consistently called for community participation in fighting crime.  Although this is a good idea, there needs to be a well-defined strategy that guides action.   I would argue that many communities would like to participate and make a difference, but that they do not know how this has to be done.   There are various initiatives all of which seek to deal with crime (media houses, community police forums, and so on) but all seem to share the belief that the solution lies with the SAPS.   The focus seems to be: “let us report crimes and criminals and thereby enable the SAPS to act”.  This is a short-term solution that fails to address the root causes and will probably not enable the Government to reach its target of reducing, for the purposes of this argument, contact crime, which—as SAPS rightly tell us—happens in situations beyond the reach of conventional policing.

 

This is not to minimise the role of the police, who have a critical role to play; but it is unfair to put the whole load on their collective shoulders.  As a colleague quipped “if communities stop buying stolen property, why would anyone take the risk of committing robbery?”.   Implicit in this statement is the observation that communities can play a significant role in reducing certain types of crimes.

 

Boyane Tshehla, Crime and Justice Programme, Pretoria (Tshwane)


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