Do foreigners really commit SA’s most violent crimes?

Statements by Gauteng’s police head promote xenophobia and could provoke violence against foreigners.

Blaming undocumented foreign nationals for crime in South Africa is nothing new, despite the lack of evidence to back such perceptions. However the South African Police Service (SAPS) Gauteng Provincial Commissioner Lieutenant-General Deliwe de Lange has reportedly claimed that about 60% of suspects arrested for violent crimes in the province are illegal immigrants.

As an experienced police officer, De Lange – we can assume – would not have made the statement without some basis. However, the statement on its own says very little and may simply fuel xenophobic attitudes. What are we to make of this claim knowing that the police don’t publicly release data on the nationalities of those they arrest?

Firstly, the commissioner refers to ‘violent crime’. The police do not have a category called ‘violent crime’, but divide violent crimes into seven broad categories: murder, attempted murder, sexual assault, aggravated robbery, common robbery, assault with intent to commit grievous bodily harm (GBH) and common assault. Collectively the SAPS refers to this broad group of crime categories as ‘contact crime’ – as there is direct contact between perpetrators and victims.

The police don’t publicly release data on the nationalities of those they arrest

One could assume that the commissioner means that 60% of people arrested for contact crimes are undocumented foreign nationals. Then we must ask for which specific categories of crime these suspects are being arrested. For the most recent financial year – 2016/17 – a total of 171 466 contact crimes were reported to Gauteng police. Nearly half of these were assaults, which made up 48% (81 767 cases) of all violent crimes reported. Murders made up the least at 2.4% (4 101 cases) of all violent crimes, and aggravated robberies made up 31% of cases (53 793 cases).

The detection rate by the SAPS for all contact crimes in the past financial year was 52.28%. The detection rate is determined by the proportion of cases opened where the police identify a perpetrator, or where the case is closed as ‘unfounded’ – when an investigation finds that no crime occurred.

The serious violent crimes that most worry Gauteng residents are murder and aggravated robbery. Statistically, these are the most reliable violent crime categories, as they have higher reporting rates than other violent crimes. Aggravated robberies are recorded by the police usually when an armed perpetrator threatens or uses violence against a victim in order to steal their belongings.

According to its 2016/17 annual report, the SAPS is able to detect perpetrators in only 23.9% of murders and in 17.9% of aggravated robberies. This means that in more than 75% of murders and in over 80% of aggravated robberies, the police have no idea who the perpetrators are. It therefore isn’t possible to make accurate assertions that undocumented foreign nationals commit most crimes such as murder and robbery.

Blaming undocumented foreign nationals for crime in South Africa is nothing new

Therefore we cannot assume – as some media reports did – that De Lange was stating that most violent crimes were committed by undocumented foreign nationals. What she said was that most people arrested for violent crimes were not South Africans.

We do know that the police have been targeting undocumented foreign nationals as a group. Operation Fiela – launched in 2015 – focused on arresting undocumented foreign nationals. Minister in the Presidency Jeff Radebe said most arrests as a result of Operation Fiela were of undocumented foreign nationals and in the first three months of the operation 15 396 undocumented foreign nationals were repatriated. When the police target particular groups of people, most arrests for violent crimes will be of people who match that profile.

The problem with targeting people because of their profile rather than because they are committing specific crimes, is that it has little, if any, impact on public safety. If most people who commit violent crimes are undocumented foreign nationals and the police are arresting large numbers of them, why has this not brought down the level of serious violent crimes in recent years?

Over the past five years in Gauteng, the number of murders has increased by 36.9% and aggravated robbery has increased by 53%. This suggests that Gauteng police are targeting the wrong people. If they were effectively targeting and arresting the people who were committing murders and robberies, these crimes would be decreasing substantially. Between 2009 and 2011, the Gauteng SAPS effectively targeted people committing robberies regardless of nationality. They managed to reduce hijackings by 32%, house robberies by 20% and business robberies by 19% in that period.

Police evidence points suggests that most criminals in South Africa are South Africans

Justice and Correctional Services Minister Michael Masutha said in July this year that only 7.5% of people in South African prisons were foreign nationals. This suggests that most people committing crimes across the country are South Africans and not foreign nationals. While there are undoubtedly foreign nationals committing crimes, there is no evidence that most of them commit crime, or that they are responsible for most crime.

While it may not be her intention, De Lange’s statements promote xenophobic attitudes and may provoke violence against foreign nationals. The Provincial Commissioner should make the data supporting her statements publicly available so her claims can be verified.

If indeed De Lange’s statement is based on data collected by the police, then we need to understand why the SAPS’ focus on arresting undocumented migrants has not resulted in a decrease in at least murder and robbery.

There is an urgent need for SAPS data to be shared better so as to develop more effective anti-crime strategies. Until there is greater cooperation and information-sharing between the police and other sectors of society, South Africa is unlikely to achieve sustainable levels of public safety.

Gareth Newham, Head of Justice and Violence Prevention, ISS Pretoria

In South Africa, Daily Maverick has exclusive rights to re-publish ISS Today articles. For media based outside South Africa and queries about our re-publishing policy, email us.

Picture: Ashraf Hendricks/GroundUp

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