Chandre Gould COMMENT: Why is crime and violence so high in South Africa?

We should look back at our recent history if we want to understand the extent of violence and crime in South Africa.

It should come as no surprise that violent crime remains disturbingly high in South Africa. What is surprising is that there isn’t even more crime and violence, considering how we have dealt with our violent past, that we have increasing poverty and inequality, and have failed as a country to secure confidence in and respect for the rule of law.

On 19 September, the police will present the crime statistics for the 2013/14 financial year.

Using the previous 12 months as a yardstick, we can expect that interpersonal violence and property crime will have affected hundreds of thousands more South Africans.

For some crimes, such as rape, domestic violence, and assault – including assaults against children – the cases recorded are a small fraction of the incidents that actually occur.

Horrifying murder statistics

Institute for Security StudiesThere were 827 children murdered in South Africa in 2012/13. That is more than two a day. Added to that is the 21,575 children who were assaulted, with almost half of those assaults being severe.

In the same year, 2,266 women were murdered, and 141,130 women were victims of attempted murder, assault GBH and common assault. As horrifying as these statistics are, the number of women and children who fell victim to violence is dwarfed by the number of similar attacks on men. In 2012/13 alone, 13,123 men were murdered. At best, half of these cases would have made it to court and not all of those that make it to court result in a guilty verdict and the perpetrator being punished.

There are several consequences of this. With each year that violence remains so prevalent, the number of South Africans who have experienced and witnessed violence increases, and so does the extent of national trauma. This has serious consequences the health system; our ability to work as a nation, and our ability to raise a new generation of safe and healthy children.

But this is only one aspect of the very serious problems we face.

The historical context of crime

We have to look back to our recent history to understand the context for crime and violence in South Africa, and in particular, South Africans’ attitudes to the law, policing and the criminal justice system.

Until 1994 South Africans had little reason to respect the law, and no reason to believe in the rule of law.

During apartheid, not only were many of the laws unjust and intended to entrench white domination, but unfair laws were also applied unfairly. In addition, the security forces, particularly the police, were used by the state to ensure that all South Africans lived in fear of the state, regardless of their race.

The apartheid state was deeply corrupt at all levels, and those who held positions of power, whether as politicians or functionaries, were very seldom called to account before a court for acts of corruption or the abuse of power.

The situation was no different in relation to interpersonal violence and crime. Black men who murdered were more likely to face harsher sentences than white men who murdered, especially if the white murderer’s victim was poor and black. Black women who were raped were less likely to have their cases investigated than cases in which white women were the victims. In this context, who could be expected to have much respect for the law, or the rule of law?

A lack of respect for the law

In 2009, then Constitutional Court Judge Kate O’Regan asked in a paper about justice and reconciliation what the implications were “of the arrest and imprisonment of so many South Africans for deeply unjust reasons over so many years for our modern attempt to establish a shared conception of justice in a constitutional democracy founded on the rule of law?”

She argued that the implications “must, at least in part, be the absence of a deep, value-based commitment to respect for law in our society and deep scepticism about the possibility of justice. The enforcement of unjust laws with the effect of sending hundreds of thousands of people to jail over many years must have weakened any sense that law-breaking or imprisonment are of and in themselves wrongful.”

She warned that developing respect for the law would take time, and concerted effort.

South Africa began that process badly, by not holding to account those who were responsible for gross human rights violations under apartheid. The promise that amnesty would be offered in exchange for the truth, and that failure to apply for amnesty would result in criminal charges, was simply not kept.

We thus entered our new dispensation with impunity entrenched, and so it has remained for those who hold positions of power and influence.

Inequality before the law

While our laws have substantially changed for the better, and our Constitution protects the rights of all South Africans and establishes the principle that all are treated equally before the law, in practice, this has been very difficult to achieve.

For example, it is relatively easy for Oscar Pistorius and Jacob Zuma, and others with access to wealth, to pay for good lawyers, to be driven to court, or to see a psychologist to help them deal with trauma or stress. It is also much easier for a middle-class victim of crime to get to a police station to report their case to the police, insist it be investigated, and follow up to ensure that the case receives attention. These are all necessary for a case to make its way through the criminal justice system.

But these privileges are not available to most of the 650 000 victims of violent crimes each year.

No easy solutions

South African attitudes towards the law are demonstrated in small things such as the high number of people who drive without seat belts and who drive under the influence of drugs or alcohol; the many teachers who still beat children at school; police officers who break traffic rules even when it is not necessary; drivers who ignore red traffic lights and so on.

It is difficult to slow this steady erosion of the law when respect for, and confidence in, the institutions of state, including the police, are undermined by the daily experience of citizens in their interactions with the criminal justice system.

Perhaps even more significantly, attempts to change attitudes towards the rule of law are stymied by the disrespect demonstrated for the law and the value of life by the very people responsible for making and enforcing the law.

For as long as those holding political office appear to act with impunity, or cynically use the criminal justice system to dodge very serious allegations of the abuse of power and state resources, we cannot reasonably expect South African citizens to respect the law.

Just as there is no single cause of violence and crime, there is no single solution.

There is an urgent need to develop a coherent programme to prevent and respond to violence. This would need to include at the very least the implementation of evidence-based programmes to support parents; and strategies to reduce inequality.

However, unless those responsible for making and enforcing laws themselves show respect for the rule of law, we have very little chance at succeeding in reducing violence and crime.

Dr Chandre Gould is a senior researcher at the Institute for Security Studies (ISS)


Additional reading

A guide to understanding crime statistics in South Africa

Resource: The Institute for Security Studies Crime Hub

Factsheet: South Africa’s 2012/13 crime statistics

Blog: Where murder happens in South Africa

Blog: The politics of crime statistics

Report: Police wrong to claim that index ‘vindicates’ official crime statistics

Spot Check: Zuma’s crime statistics selective and misleading

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Comment on this report

Comments 14
  1. By Marisa

    I agree with this analysis, and I would also add that our history is reflected in strike action, where police and protesters alike do not know how to act without using violent means.

    Reply Report comment
  2. By Witek

    the problem with this article is that it completely fails to hold individuals accountable for their own actions. The article reads as though no one has personal responsibility, that it’s the systems fault, because no one has respect for the law due to history.
    Here’s the thing, in any society I believe that most people know that killing someone, raping someone, stealing from someone, is fundamentally wrong.
    History and today’s inequality, poverty, can make people frustrated, angry, perhaps even violent towards the state. It can indeed make people feel that the legal criminal justice system does not work and they fail to respect it.
    But none of this can justify why an individual chooses to murder someone, rape someone, steal from someone.
    Countries like South Africa may well be in a mess (in part) because of the consequences of its past, but it will only come out of its mess once all South Africans start taking personal responsibility for their own actions. Starting with the politicians at the top.
    While politicians and their establishment continue to divert attention by blaming everything on the past, instead of accepting responsibility for today, the nations people will be doing the same and everything will continue to slip further.

    Reply Report comment
    • By simba

      i think the writer made it clear that there is no single cause to crime and besides the article seems to highlight the historical contribution as to why there is disrespect for law in South Africa, in your closing remarks though you basically concur with the whole article.

      Reply Report comment
  3. By rob

    Thanks for this article. It provides a nice context for crime in SA.

    However, I’m curious as to your thoughts on rape. It wasn’t mentioned much in this piece.

    For the other crimes, it seems like your main premise is that citizens are committing crimes because there isn’t trust in the rule of law, there is poverty and inequality. I feel this is a good explanation for systemic crimes– corruption, embezzlement, not paying taxes, jaywalking, speeding, etc. But, I’m not convinced of this explanation travelling to account for interpersonal crimes? What is the causal connection b/t these structural conditions and brutally raping or murdering a fellow individual, not an act on or against an institution or government? What motivates (overwhelmingly) men to commit these atrocities? To have such little regard for life and another human?

    Looking at the numbers your website provides on rape:

    “Reported cases of rape stabilised, with a slight decrease of 3%, since 2008/9 from 47,588 to 46,253 in 2013/14.”


    “The Medical Research Council has estimated that only one in nine rapes are reported to the police.”

    Let’s take a more conservative estimate and say only 1 in 5 rapes are reported. That would be equivalent to roughly 230k rapes a year, or 630 a day, in a country with a population of 50 million. That is a massive number and far extends any argument based on socioeconomic or historical marginalization and maltreatment bases. Lastly, most rapes are committed by someone who knows the victim, and most victims in South Africa, unfortunately, come from those with a lower SES. Thus, poor people are committing rapes against other poor people. So, the socioeconomic marginalisation and lack of trust in the rule of law argument seems to be less than convincing for rape (and other violent violations).

    Thanks for any thoughts!

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  4. By Appalled

    The sad reality is that the responsibility for the unacceptable state corruption in South Africa is largley responsibilty of the leaders and politians of this country, and that is across the political spectrum.

    It is indeed sad as when i and a known large group of witnesses and informers report factual cases to our police, intelligence services and a year down the line nothing has been done.

    Citing and example a known Durban construction company raising capital by washing well known drug syndicates money (at a fee), where the already dirty money is used to pay off corrupt government officials and public works officials in hard cash. Many innocent parties are caught up in the scheme who all want to speak of what they know and can prove in terms of correspondences. Yet a man is dead, the company accountant and foreign national partner has dissappeared and corrupt Hawks and a ex SBV Heist character are employed to silence those who want to speak.

    There is another case that will blow peoples minds, watch wikileaks and afrileaks as all mentioned has been handed over.

    Answer any and all God fearing normal person, please pack your bags and leave SA as the politicians, press, police and intelligence are simply not interested

    Reply Report comment
  5. By Realist

    Its not just violent crime thats a problem in SA. The exorbitant fees charged by private hospitals, lawyers and banks is just as criminal, albeit in a legal way. If apartheid were not to blame, all the neighbouring countries would be just as bad. They aren’t!

    Reply Report comment
  6. By Realist

    SouthAfrica’s entire history is one of violence and criminality, from the time Jan Van Riebeek arrived to the present day. In the absence of light, there is only darkness.

    Reply Report comment
  7. By gugu

    loved this post am not happy about the south african situation , we are mocked everytime by other worthless nations in africa, something has to be done, children lives are destroyed and trauma leads them to reckless life style

    Reply Report comment
  8. By John

    Increase in population!!!!
    There should be an restriction for the people who are homeless and living in shacks and informal is increasing by the day….the country is becoming over populated…a law should be inforced where ,if you stay in the above mentioned places…a limit to one child per family…because it will decrease the demand for jobs…decrease the crime rate and hijacking…and all this motion to inhabit vacant areas should be abolished..

    Reply Report comment
  9. By MDK

    I agree in so much that this article mentions a disrespect for the rule of law and gives some historically backing as to why. But I disagree that their is no single reason why crime is perpetuating in South Africa, or in Sau Paulo as another commentator mentions. There is one clear reason. Human beings and their nature. We model our caretakers at an early age, and the majority of parents in countries like South Africa and Sau Paulo do not teach discipline the way a modern world should. Corporal punishment has been outlawed long ago, yet teachers beat girls over the heads with sticks, Shangomas and Nyangas teach superstitions over science and some even lace their so called medicines with drugs. Drug cultures dominate. The writer makes many valid points and perhaps knows what I’m about to say but doesn’t articulate it enough. So, to conclude my comment I’d say it’s important to remember that the law is but merely ink on paper, and like any deal that is inked, a contract or a constitution is only as good as the people who choose to uphold it. Laziness, complacency and self-entitlement means mediocrity is the benchmark as people judge other people based on what they get upfront rather than judging themselves based on how they are effecting a change in the relationship. All these “I have rights first and foremost!” protestations are debasing the rules of law from the very thing that founds them, i.e. “I have responsibilities first and foremost, to uphold the sanctity of the human spirit, to contribute to the conservation of the environment and to liberate the developments of civilization and its pursuits for excellence, and by failure alone will I find the feedback that will lead me to success as I am accountable for my actions, i.e. as a doctor, teacher, producer, leader, whatever, knowing that the response I get is the meaning of my communication and the reactions I get is the value of my actions, and hereby accept the full penalty of the law if my communications and actions violate these tenets.” Only then are your rights received. That’s what schools try to teach but fail at dismally because parents are also disrupting the mission of schools by entertaining their children’s excuses or expecting their children to entertain their excuses as parents. No more excuses, or blame, no more crime. Since excuse making is the nature of criminal mindsets, perhaps it is wise of other countries to build walls to block out this infection, if not it be better to just realize that the best pill is a lead pill, as we are all tired of seeing bad people hurt each other like dogs biting each other’s festering wounds, when everything those countries need to change has already been overpaid for in foreign aid and taxes. It’s time to hold to account the countries as a whole and not blame their leaderships only but those who follow their leaderships too, and stop this outpouring of mercy that will come back to bite us all and hold back the best in the children we are all actually trying to raise to be better than ourselves. I will hold myself to account if, someday, this disease of irresponsibility flourishes throughout the world and I did nothing to stop it from corrupting our children’s futures. I will not blame anyone but myself for not finding a way to end this nonsense once and for all. We are all getting dangerously close to stopping this outpouring of mercy and bring our rights to enforce dominion back by eradicating poverty by plucking it out the way life is plucked out of a weed, because the masses of such countries refuse to change their collective thoughts. Escape from those ways before it is too late, that’s my only warning. It’s getting there, I don’t think so I know so. Be very careful as the next twenty years will shed a harsher light on this issue.

    Reply Report comment
  10. By clipper

    Very one-sided and obviously ignoring the good of the past. We had excellent world renowned universities, trained some of the best tradesmen in the world, had local businesses that rivaled the best in the world, an economy that grew daily despite the problems of apartheid, crime statistics that were a fraction of the current, and there was no wholesale killing of blacks such as we see with the killing of whites currently. The bottom line is that the current crime rate is due to the poor governance of the anc and the removal of everything that even suggested punishment for crime. Also most of the laws are more restrictive than apartheid laws ever were

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