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Ashraf Hendricks

ANALYSIS: South African minority party right to be worried over North West crime stats, but lockdown skewed numbers

A Freedom Front Plus leader in North West said the murder rate for the province nearly doubled from 2020 to 2021. He’s right, but lockdown measures had an impact.

South Africa’s crime statistics “paint an alarming picture” in its North West province, according to Michael Groenewald. He’s the provincial leader for the Freedom Front Plus (FF+) party in the North West.

Police minister Bheki Cele released the country’s latest quarterly crime statistics on 20 August 2021. They covered the first quarter of the 2021/22 financial year, from April to June.

In a 24 August press release, Groenewald said: “The province's murder rate increased with nearly 100% in comparison to the same period in 2020.”

He went on to say: “The Covid-19 lockdown is not to blame for this. In fact, during lockdown people are supposed to stay home and not be out and about committing crimes.”

Is he correct? We checked. 

Murder rate increased by 97.8%

Cele said many crime categories, including contact crimes, sexual offences and aggravated robberies, “recorded a never seen before double digit increases”. 

The crime statistics show that 3,466 murders were reported nationally between April and June 2020. This increased by 66.2% to 5,760 murders reported from April to June 2021. 

In North West, the number of murders recorded increased by 98.4%, from 127 in April to June 2020 to 252 for the same period in 2021. 

The police did not release the murder rate, which shows the number of murders per 100,000 people in an area. However, it can be calculated using Statistics South Africa mid-year population estimates.

Using the estimates from 2020 and 2021, Groenewald was correct that the murder rate in North West increased “nearly 100% in comparison to the same period in 2020”. 

The murder rate increased by approximately 97.8%, from 3.1 to 6.1 murders per 100,000 people.

2020 lockdown crime stats are an outlier 

Groenewald said: “The Covid-19 lockdown is not to blame for this. In fact, during lockdown people are supposed to stay home and not be out and about committing crimes.”

But experts told Africa Check that the strict level-five lockdown during the first quarter of 2020/2021 skewed the comparison. 

Dr Anine Kriegler, researcher with the Centre of Criminology at the University of Cape Town, told Africa Check: “Quarter 1 of 2020/2021 was absolutely an outlier. When trends are this unsteady, we cannot get a useful impression from percentage increases, but have to look at the trend over time.”

The crime statistics show that recorded murders and many other crimes were far lower from April to June 2020 than in any previous year. This is the case across all nine South African provinces.

In an article for the Conversation published 30 August 2021, Kriegler wrote: “South Africa’s latest crime statistics do not show a sudden escalation in crime. Instead, they show a return to the trends seen before this exceptional period of lifestyle disruption.”

This might be due to several factors. The most obvious was that, as Kriegler put it, “people who never leave the house provide potential criminals with few opportunities for interpersonal crimes like assault or street robbery”.

Murder rate increase by 15.6% between 2019 and 2021

Lizette Lancaster, the manager of the crime and justice information hub of the Institute for Security Studies, also confirmed that 2020 was a statistically unusual year. 

Both Lancaster and Kriegler advised comparing the North West’s 2021 murder statistics to pre-2020 years, such as 2019.

This shows that North West saw a rise in murders from April to June 2021 compared to previous years. Compared to the same period in 2019 the increase was 18.3% or 39 more murders. 

The North West province’s murder rate also increased across this period, from 5.3 per 100,000 people in 2019 to 6.1 murders in 2021, an increase of 15.6%.

A spokesperson for the police in the North West told Africa Check it was unreasonable to compare the most recent statistics to those from the level five lockdown in 2020. 

He said a comparison to 2019 showed a smaller increase in murders and the murder rate. But, he added, “an increase with one case is still a concern because one case is one too many”.

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