Crime in Our Country

1 January 2017

Thabo Mbeki acknowledged in his eighth annual State of the Nation speech that his government needed to work harder to combat the ‘ugly and repulsive’ scourge of violent crime. Mbeki, under pressure after recently saying that he did not think crime was a major problem, promised to increase police numbers, improve intelligence and forensic data, and reduce court backlogs. Mbeki’s recognition that violent crime was a problem came as a surprise to many critics who had accused him of not doing enough to cut crime and of being apathetic to the country’s security issues.

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Many in South Africa now hope that the government will bring the country’s rampant criminality under control. However, considering South Africa’s socio-economic imbalances and tensions, it is unlikely that Mbeki’s investment in the criminal justice system alone will be enough to bring about a significant reduction in the country’s crime rates. Political and social transformation have profoundly affected South Africa. New and non-racial forms of democratic government have been established and entrenched at national, provincial and local levels.

The disintegrating economy of the apartheid era has been transformed into one of low budget deficits, low inflation, and year on year growth for the past eight years. However, the journey has been far from painless: while political violence has ended, violent criminality has increased. In 2006 alone, official figures show that there were some 18,500 murders, over 20,000 attempted murders, 55,000 reported rapes and 120,000 violent robberies. Despite these shocking statistics, the South African government has been slow to accept that there is a problem.

As recently as last month, President Mbeki dismissed the issue of crime as ‘exaggerated’ and just a few days later, national police commissioner Jackie Selebi, asked ‘what’s all the fuss about crime? ’. The comments caused public outrage. Mbeki’s political opponents labelled him a denialist and tens of thousands of South Africans signed internet petitions urging the president to tackle crime seriously. Mbeki’s State of the Nation address suggests that that message has now got through. In addition to conceding that there is a problem, Mbeki’s speech also outlined some broad policy promises.

He stated that his government would boost pay and increase the number of police officers from 152,000 to 180,000 over the next three years. He also vowed to improve the force’s intelligence gathering and analysis capability and the efficiency of the country’s courts and forensic laboratories, and to enhance the country’s border controls and build new prisons. It is a step in the right direction but it is not likely to bring about a wholesale improvement in the country’s crime rates. Firstly, South Africa’s crime problem is largely a result of poverty and inequality.

Although the country has had an outstandingly successful decade economically, little of this growth has benefited the poorest sections of South African society. Despite a five percent growth in GDP over the past year and significant government investment in housing and infrastructure for the poor, the number of people in poverty in South Africa is increasing, as is the gap between rich and poor. The country’s official unemployment rate stands at about 26 percent and unofficial estimates place it as high as 40 percent.

In addition, according to UNAID, although the country is regarded as Africa’s economic powerhouse, over 34 percent of its 48 million inhabitants live on US$2 or less a day. Crime is seen as a means of survival for many in South Africa and a mechanism of retribution for others. While many claim that poverty and inequality are the primary drivers of criminality in SA, there is currently further discussion as to why crime is so frequently accompanied by high levels of violence.

Some suggest that this violence stems from deeper social problems that are particular to South Africa and its past. Unless the country’s socio-economic imbalances are addressed, South Africa’s crime problem will continue and is even likely to worsen. Secondly, South Africa already spends a lot on its criminal justice system. The annual budget for the police, courts and prisons in South Africa rose from US$2. 3 billion in 2001 to US$4. 2 billion in 2006.

This spending represents over two percent of its GDP, compared to an average of one percent in the rest of the world. Yet this high level of spending has not had much effect on the lower levels of crime. One problem is with the management and leadership of the police. The South African Police Service (SAPS) suffers from the legacy of apartheid. Its transition from an instrument of political repression into a crime-fighting force has been long and arduous. Many experienced (and mainly white) officers have left.

The force remains on the whole poorly trained and ill-disciplined. Police corruption is widespread and there is evidence of collusion with criminal elements. Improved pay, conditions and training would help, but there also needs to be a change of ethos and direction. However, there is little leadership at the top. Unless Mbeki and his administration instigate a top-down transformation of the SAPS, it is unlikely that his bottom-up investment in the country’s criminal justice system will have even a nominal effect on crime.

South Africa’s government, like those in both the developed and developing world, appears to be relying too heavily on the criminal justice system to solve crime problems and is failing to adequately tackle the socio-economic issues that are at the heart of the problem. Although increasing police numbers and building more jails may initially satisfy both the media and the public, without addressing the country’s problems of poverty, inequality, juvenile delinquency and lingering racism, they are highly unlikely to bring about a significant improvement in South Africa’s security environment.

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