To heal South Africa, we must first stop the bleeding

From overcoming South Africa’s energy crisis to creating jobs and delivering services, government priorities depend on a safe socio-economic environment. But the country is bleeding. It cannot flourish in the face of high levels of violence and corruption.

To heal and thrive, the government must focus its attention and resources on creating a society characterised by safety and the rule of law. For many, thinking of criminal justice as central to national development is antithetical to progress. But targeted and trusted policing is crucial.

Imagine South Africa as a young adult, full of potential but afflicted with a chronic disease. Doctors believe that a cure will emerge if they keep the patient alive long enough. But our patient has been in an accident and is bleeding. Paramedics on the scene would first stop the bleeding and tend to life-threatening injuries. The victim would then be transferred to appropriate carers for long-term recovery and attention to the chronic illness.

Similarly, South Africa must first stop the ‘bleeding’ of serious violence and elite corruption before it can recover from the diseases of poverty, inequality, unemployment and their painful symptoms.

Police can disrupt the drivers of serious harm, creating the space for others to tackle the root causes

Earlier this year, the Institute for Economics and Peace estimated the cost of violence in South Africa at 14% of its gross domestic product. Gallup’s Law and Order Index for 2022 ranks South Africa among the least safe of 122 countries.

This isn’t surprising. According to the South African Police Service, its officials identify a suspect in fewer than 15% of murder cases, suggesting a failure in one of its most important functions. This is less than half the proportion of murders the police solved a decade ago.

Violence and organised crime are rising, with murder surging by 14% in the latest police figures. These offences together with elite corruption in the public and private spheres are decimating lives, governance and the economy and stifling the country’s potential. And the government seems helpless to stop it.

It was said of endemic gang violence in 1990s Los Angeles that nothing stops a bullet like a job. But this assumes there are jobs to be had. In South Africa, unemployment exceeds that of almost any other country. Certainly, a boost in employment would end many of the country’s woes. But to create jobs, South Africa must first stop the bullets and elite corruption.

Police can’t be everywhere, but they can stop the worst harms where they are concentrated and predictable

Government’s priority must be safety and the rule of law. They are the foundation of a healthy individual, a peaceful neighbourhood, a vibrant city, and a capable state.

Long term, public safety cannot depend on the presence of armed police officers. Rather, it must be a by-product of predictable, stable and dignified lives, as described in South Africa’s National Development Plan. But a 2021 evaluation of the plan’s progress suggests its goals remain distant. To bring them closer, the police and criminal justice system are crucial.

Police can’t be everywhere or do everything, but they can stop the worst harms where they are most concentrated and predictable. Worldwide, incidents of crime and violence cluster in time and place and within particular social networks. A few offenders generate a disproportionate degree of harm, and a minority of repeat victims bear its brunt.

For example in 2020/21, 4 169 murders occurred in just 30 police station areas in South Africa. That means 2.6% of stations recorded 21% of all murders, with these crimes concentrated in specific neighbourhoods.

Particular people and behaviours similarly drive disproportionate levels of harm, like Yanga Nyalara, who in June was arrested on 18 counts of murder. Or the Gupta brothers, believed to have looted R50 billion of public funds together with corrupt politicians and businesspeople. By targeting these individuals, places and actions, police and their partners can disrupt the drivers of serious harm, creating the space for others in government and civil society to tackle the conditions that created them.

By halving murder in the most violent 2.6% of policing areas, the national murder total would decline by 10%

Policies like the National Development Plan and Medium-Term Strategic Framework show that some in government, like the allegorical doctors, understand how to ‘cure’ the country of the diseases of poverty, inequality and corruption. But the proverbial paramedics – police and their partners – cannot set the stage for this vision. They are spread too thin due to poor leadership and lack of focus. That leaves South Africa, the ‘patient’, both perpetually bleeding and ill.

For South Africa to heal, police and their partners must focus on the places and people associated with the greatest harm. For example, by halving murder in the most violent 2.6% of policing areas, the national murder total would decline by 10%. In a best-case scenario, this could be achieved in a year or two. It could free up policing and allied resources, swell domestic and international confidence in government, and exponentially increase subsequent public safety efforts.

The same logic applies to elite corruption and organised crime. This is possible but will require leadership from government and a programme of action to professionalise South Africa’s police services, starting at the top.

With the most serious violence quashed and the most corrupt brought to justice, social workers, urban developers, teachers, entrepreneurs and investors can more easily address the chronic ailments of poverty, inequality and unemployment.

However, if people continue to perceive the state as corrupt, unable to keep them safe, create jobs, or protect their investments, they’re more likely to turn to illicit economic activities and violence to bring order to their precarious lives. In short, social order and state legitimacy will erode.

Unattended, mortal wounds lead to death. But carefully treated, recovery can inspire a new appreciation for life and growth. South Africa’s police and partners must stop the bleeding from the country’s national body. Only then will the young nation be free to grow and thrive.

Andrew Faull, Senior Researcher, Justice and Violence Prevention, ISS Pretoria

Image: © SA Police Service/Twitter

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