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A special kind of war zone: Violent crime in South Africa

5th January 2011

By: Creamer Media Reporter

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The levels of violent crime in South Africa are so high that one would be forgiven for calling the country a special kind of war zone. Indeed, the rates of homicide, rape, domestic violence and assault, among others are far above those of comparable countries.(2) Violent crime is ingrained in the social fabric of the country and it is violent crime that is decimating South Africa’s economic and social development.


This discussion paper addresses the reality of violent crime in South Africa by highlighting a selection of statistics. Thereafter, the causes of violent crime in the country are discussed. The aim thereof is to provide an indication of the deeply embedded sources of violent crime in South African society and the widespread nature of solutions needed to mitigate this scourge.

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The reality of violent crime in South Africa


Targeted facts and statistics are the best way to show the extent of violent crime in South Africa. It must however be noted at this point, that the South African Government’s crime statistics are heavily criticised for their lack of credibility and the implausibility. As Jonny Steinberg(3) from the Institute for Humanities at the University of Cape Town notes: “The experts discreetly [turn] their backs to the elephant in the room. The truth is that nobody, not us, not the experts, and most important of all, not the police, have much idea of South Africa’s true crime rate. The reason is simple: the police do know because they do not want to know”. The underreporting and misreporting of crime in the country is no secret, nor are the high levels of corruption that have plagued the South African police force.

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Compounding the poor quality of policing and subsequently the poor quality of the violent crime statistics is the fact that there is no independent audit of the data gathering process of crime statistics.(4) What can be taken from the above is that the crime statistics provided by the Government are, if anything, an extremely conservative picture of the levels of violent crime in the country. With this in mind, a number of facts and statistics pertaining to violent crime in South Africa are now provided. The below depiction of violent crime is based on a study done by the Medical Research Council.(5) The study incorporates both original research and Government-provided statistics in an overview of violent crime in South Africa:


• In 2007-2008, 18487 homicides were reported by the police;
• South Africa’s rate of violent death for men (113 per 100,000) is eight times the global average (8.2 per 100,000);
• Violence is overwhelmingly perpetrated by men;
• In 2000 there were 654 homicides of children under 5, representing nearly 1 in 200 child deaths for that year;
• Half of women homicide victims are killed by their male intimate partners;
• Over 40% of men in research interviews report having been physically violent to a partner and 40-50% of women report having been victims;
• 28% of men reported having perpetrated rape; and
• More than a third of girls have experienced sexual violence before the age of 18.


In 2007, the Centre for the Study of Violence and Reconciliation (CSVR) was contracted by the South African Government to carry out a six-part study over the period of two years on the violent nature of crime in the country. The sixth and final report was submitted to the Minister of Police, Nathi Mthethwa in February 2009 and a subsequent version of this report was published in March 2010. The findings of the six-part report are invaluable as they provide key insights into the nature and extent of violent crime in the country.


With regards to the geography of crime, the report finds that South Africa displays major variations in terms of the distribution of the major forms of violent crime. The country is split into nine provinces of which high per capita rates of robbery are recorded in KwaZulu-Natal, the Western Cape, and most noticeably in Gauteng. With regard to assault with intent to do grievous bodily harm, and rape, the statistics are switched around, with KwaZulu-Natal and Limpopo province recording the lowest per capita rates.(6)


In terms of the perpetrators of crime, the report substantiates that violent crime in the metropolitan areas, particularly in townships and inner city regions “is associated with young men who tend to be invested in some kind of criminal identity and associate with other like-minded people. Those involved fall across a spectrum which ranges from criminals who operate as individual rapists or robbers to large numbers affiliated to mainly informal (but sometimes more formal) groups or gangs. These informal gangs are a training ground for participants in the more organised groups”.


It can be gathered from the above, that violent crime in South Africa is largely perpetrated by young men, who are members of a diverse range of informal and formal groups and formations, and who participate in various forms of violence, all of which are supported by the easy availability of weapons in South Africa. This sub-culture of violence and criminality is caused by a number of related issues, for which there are no easy solutions.


Understanding violent crime in South Africa


In order to understand why South Africa has such high levels of violence, one needs to look firstly, at the country’s fraught history. Indeed, one can say that South Africa has an imbedded culture of violence which emerged through the consecutive events of colonisation and Apartheid. As Jewkes et al(7) write: “The social dynamics fostered during the years of racial oppression, combined with a strong culture of resistance to the various forms of oppression, including under-education, the disruption of normal family dynamics, rampant violence, and institutionalised poverty, among others, are the central explanatory factors behind the country’s current exceedingly high levels of violent crime”. Specifically, the main causal issues that sustain South Africa’s high levels of violent crime can be singled out as follows:


1. Inequality, poverty, unemployment, social exclusion and marginalisation (8)


South Africa is one of the most unequal societies in the world and international research consistently points out that societies that are characterised by high levels of inequality tend to have high levels of violence, indicating that inequality by itself is a central driver of violent crime.(9) Statistically speaking, in 2008, the richest 10% of households in South Africa earned 40 times more than the poorest 50% of households.(10) Intractable social problems, which are highly visible in South Africa, including poverty, unemployment, social exclusion and marginalisation are also closely related to the problem of inequality, thereby further compounding the correlation between inequality and violent crime.


2. Perceptions and values relating to violence and crime (11)


South Africa is a unique society in that citizens tend to perceive violent crime as the norm. They therefore have a high tolerance for violent crime and ambivalent attitudes regarding crime and the law. Indeed, the culture of violence spurned by Apartheid, means that South Africans have been socialised into viewing the violence that characterises everyday life as something to be expected, when this extent of violent crime is far from normal. Moreover, this history has created the widely held belief that violence is the only way to resolve conflicts or other difficulties.(12) Violence is therefore perceived as both necessary and justified among South African society. Factors that perpetuate these beliefs and thus continue the cycles of violence include a high exposure to violence in the family and community, men’s perception that they need to use violence to protect themselves and to obtain the respect of others, and beliefs among men that legitimises coercive sexual behaviour against women.(13)


3. The vulnerability of young people, linked to inadequate child rearing and inappropriate youth socialisation (14)


South African children in general, experience multiple levels of adversity, including “poverty, unstable living arrangements, absent, indifferent or violent fathers and alcohol or other substance abusive parents or relatives.”(15) As a result, children in South Africa are exposed to many of the ‘risk factors’, substantially increasing their chances of becoming involved in criminality and violence. Essentially, South Africa is unwittingly breeding a society of violent criminals as without supportive families and access to opportunities, children have few other options than to turn to crime.


4. Weaknesses of the criminal justice system and aligned systems (16)


While the judicial system in South Africa is functional and for the most part trustworthy, the same cannot be said for the country’s correctional institutions. The key instrument for dealing with violent crime offenders is to incarcerate them in one of South Africa’s correctional facilities. However, the deplorable status of South Africa’s correctional institutions means that they really only serve to reinforce the criminal and violent tendencies displayed by offenders.(17) Indeed, South Africa’s correctional facilities serve as a place from which offenders can consolidate their place in criminal networks. Moreover, rehabilitation and reintegration programmes to re-socialise offenders back into communities are inadequate at best and non-existent at worst.(18) As Bruce(19) concludes, “[th]e criminal justice system therefore remains a double-edged sword which continually reinforces the problem of violence and crime whilst it also mitigates it”.


Other key factors identified comprise the easy availability of firearms and other weapons in South Africa,(20) the regional and local criminal economy,(21) and the easy access to, and widespread use and abuse of alcohol and drugs.(22)


Concluding remarks


South Africa is clearly a society with many related problems. Violent crime is unfortunately, both a cause and a consequence of the above-mentioned issues. Dealing with violent crime is not as easy as arresting the gangsters and rapists, it is a task involving a sustained multi-pronged approach, which includes all of the above-mentioned issues and is tantamount to the re-moulding of the fabric of South African society. This is no easy feat and it will not be realised with the type of efforts that have characterised the approach to the country’s vast problems so far.


While it is recognised that efforts have been made to address South Africa’s problems, the crux of the matter is that South Africa is losing the battle. This loss is reflected in the swathes of qualified South Africans leaving for greener pastures overseas and it is also reflected in the helplessness and anger of those who do not have the luxury of moving away from the problem. However, if the problem of violent crime is not adequately addressed in the (very) near future, attempts to do so will fall short in the face of the enormity of the problem.


NOTES:

(1) Contact Catherine Pringle through Consultancy Africa Intelligence's Africa Watch Unit (africa.watch@consultancyafrica.com).
(2) Jewkes, R., Abrahams, N., Mathews, S., Seedat, M., Van Niekerk, A., and Ratele, K. 2009. Preventing Rape and Violence in South Africa: Call for Leadership in a New Agenda for Action. MRC Policy Brief, pp.1.
(3) Jonny Steinberg, ‘True crime statistics - too horrible to tabulate’, The Times Live, 26 September 2010 http://www.timeslive.co.za.
(4) Ibid.
(5) Ibid.
(6) Bruce, D. 2010. Tackling Armed Violence: Key Findings and Recommendations of the Study on the Violent Nature of crime in South Africa. The Centre for the Study of Violence and Reconciliation and The Department of Safety and Security, Republic of South Africa, pp. 5-6.
(7) Jewkes, R., Abrahams, N., Mathews, S., Seedat, M., Van Niekerk, A., and Ratele, K. 2009. Preventing Rape and Violence in South Africa: Call for Leadership in a New Agenda for Action. MRC Policy Brief, pp.1.
(8) Bruce, D. 2010. Tackling Armed Violence: Key Findings and Recommendations of the Study on the Violent Nature of crime in South Africa. The Centre for the Study of Violence and Reconciliation and The Department of Safety and Security, Republic of South Africa, pp. 10.
(9) Bruce, D. 2010. Why South Africa is so violent and what we should be doing about it: Statement by the Centre for the Study of Violence and Reconciliation. The Centre for the Study of Violence and Reconciliation, pp. 3.
(10) Ibid.
(11) Bruce, D. 2010. Tackling Armed Violence: Key Findings and Recommendations of the Study on the Violent Nature of crime in South Africa. The Centre for the Study of Violence and Reconciliation and The Department of Safety and Security, Republic of South Africa, pp. 10.
(12) Bruce, D. 2010. Why South Africa is so violent and what we should be doing about it: Statement by the Centre for the Study of Violence and Reconciliation. The Centre for the Study of Violence and Reconciliation, pp. 4.
(13) Ibid.
(14) Bruce, D. 2010. Tackling Armed Violence: Key Findings and Recommendations of the Study on the Violent Nature of crime in South Africa. The Centre for the Study of Violence and Reconciliation and The Department of Safety and Security, Republic of South Africa, pp. 10.
(15) Bruce, D. 2010. Why South Africa is so violent and what we should be doing about it: Statement by the Centre for the Study of Violence and Reconciliation. The Centre for the Study of Violence and Reconciliation, pp. 4.
(16) Bruce, D. 2010. Tackling Armed Violence: Key Findings and Recommendations of the Study on the Violent Nature of crime in South Africa. The Centre for the Study of Violence and Reconciliation and The Department of Safety and Security, Republic of South Africa, pp. 10.
(17) Bruce, D. 2010. Why South Africa is so violent and what we should be doing about it: Statement by the Centre for the Study of Violence and Reconciliation. The Centre for the Study of Violence and Reconciliation, pp. 5.
(18) Ibid.
(19) Ibid.
(20) Bruce, D. 2010. Tackling Armed Violence: Key Findings and Recommendations of the Study on the Violent Nature of crime in South Africa. The Centre for the Study of Violence and Reconciliation and The Department of Safety and Security, Republic of South Africa, pp. 10-11.
(21) Ibid.
(22) Ibid.

Written by Catherine Pringle(1)

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