South Africa’s notoriously high crime rate is down, but it doesn’t feel that way

Going door to door.
Going door to door.
Image: Reuters/Mike Hutchings
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Crime is down by 1.8% in South Africa, but even the police agree that the country just doesn’t feel any safer.

“Yes, we have a 1.8% drop in crime, I do not feel it, and our people do not feel it, and they are correct,” police minister Fikile Mbalula told parliament in a live broadcast.

The South African Police Service released its annual crime statistics today (Oct. 24), which represent the charges police stations have recorded over the 2016-17 financial year, irrespective of whether they led to a conviction. The country has struggled to shake its reputation as one of the world’s crime capitals, even as some gains have been made in crime fighting.

This year, even though there is a slight decrease overall, the historical trend shows most crimes increasing over the past five years. Most worrying is the nature of these crimes.

Collectively, contact crimes, in which the perpetrator physically harms a victim—including murders, sexual assaults and robberies—are at their lowest rate since 2013-14. That number has been lowered by decreases in charges related to sexual violence (-4.3%),  assault (with common assault down by -5.7% and grievous bodily harm down by -6.7%), but belies the increase in crimes such as murder and robbery.

“Crime is in general down, but when you zoom into the numbers, we have a big problem where violent crime is going up, and there is no time to hide this,” said Mbalula.

South Africans are at a “substantially higher risk” of being victims of crime than five years ago, according to the Institute of Security Studies. The nongovernmental organization says this is largely due to the police’s inability to prevent crime despite a budget that has increased each year from 2012 to 87 billion rand (over $6.3 billion) today.

Murder has increased for a fifth consecutive year, said Gareth Newham, head of the institute’s justice and violence prevention division. Most of the victims are young men, also indicative of an increase in gang-related violence and the state’s struggle to curb it, especially in Cape Town. Murder remains the most reliable way of telling how a country is coping with crime “because most murders can be independently verified, there is a dead body that you can count,” he said.

There were also 40,000 more incidents of aggravated robbery this financial year than there were five years ago, said Newham. Between 2009 and 2011, police in Gauteng province—home to Pretoria, the nation’s capital, and its largest city, Johannesburg—were able to thwart crime syndicates through improved investigations, intelligence and forensics. Newham said the historical decrease and subsequent rise in crime shows the police have the skills and resources to fight crime but are hampered by political interference.

The high crime rate has also weakened South Africans’ confidence in the police service. There are crimes that South Africans are just unwilling to report because they believe it will lead nowhere. These include crimes such as “smash-and-grabs,” in which thieves break an unsuspecting driver’s window to snatch their cellphone or purse. Even more serious crimes, especially sexual offenses, are also rarely reported because of the associated trauma and stigma—and the low rate of convictions. What all of this shows is how South Africans have learned to live with crime as part of daily life.