South Africa’s national State of Disaster and associated lockdown in response to the COVID-19 pandemic is unprecedented. It could have a significant impact on crime and public safety, both in the short and longer term.
Although it’s too early for definitive conclusions on the security impact of responses to the virus, media reports have cited instances elsewhere where restrictions on public movement have yielded some safety benefits. Between 16 and 22 March, crime in New York City dropped by 17%, with similar figures from the Netherlands. This trend wasn’t reported for all crime types however. Vehicle theft rocketed by 52% in New York during this period.
South Africa faces very different challenges to Western countries that have implemented lockdowns to prevent the spread of the virus. As one of the most unequal countries on Earth, 30.4 million people or 56% of the population lived on R1 227 or less a month in 2019 while the top 10% of earners took home 65% of all income.
Millions of people live in single rooms and cramped conditions in informal settlements or crowded inner-city buildings. They will struggle to make substantial adjustments to their lives to mitigate the spread of the virus. Being forced to stay indoors for weeks could result in heightened tensions between people in households and between neighbours.
At 36.4 per 100 000 people, South Africa has one of the world’s highest murder rates. This is the result of a culture of violence, a toxic mix of poverty, inequality and unemployment, and cities that retain apartheid-era urban design. These problems are exacerbated by chronic alcohol and drug abuse. Most murders result from conflict between young adult men who make up 81% of the 21 022 murder victims recorded by the police in 2018/19.
One concern is that keeping men in their homes under the lockdown, with many unemployed or having just lost their jobs, could result in more incidents of domestic violence, and possibly even sexual and gender-based violence.
Police Minister Bheki Cele on 5 April clarified to the media that the South African Police Service had received 2 320 complaints of gender-based violence during just the first week of the lockdown. This is 37% higher than the weekly average for the 87 290 gender-based violence cases reported during 2019. The national Gender-Based Violence Command Centre said they’d had triple the usual number of calls.
Research by the South African Medical Research Council found that 56% of female murder victims in South Africa were killed by their intimate partners. A related concern is that almost 45% of child murder victims die as a result of abuse or neglect, often at the hands of their mothers.
The Guardian, citing police and activists, reports that there is already evidence from other countries that lockdowns due to the virus have resulted in increased domestic violence.
Because the lockdown is unprecedented – in South Africa and elsewhere – there is no clear evidence yet for its effect on crime and violence. It could even yield positive developments with regards to overall levels of interpersonal violence.
Alcohol is a major contributor to South Africa’s high levels of inter-personal violence. So the ban on alcohol sales during the lockdown could contribute to a reduction of violence. Daily Maverick however reports warnings from psychologists that for some people addicted to alcohol, going ‘cold turkey’ could increase stress levels and potentially cause conflict or violence.
The heightened presence of the police and military on the streets, and fewer people moving around, may reduce crimes such as street robbery, hijackings and theft. However the security forces cannot be everywhere, all the time. In the initial phase of lockdown, gangs and crime syndicates may find their routine activities disrupted. But they will probably soon adjust, enabled by systemic corruption in the police, weak crime intelligence and a lack of accountable leadership in law enforcement.
This could mitigate against reductions in residential robberies and business burglaries. Moreover, the ban on alcohol sales, cigarettes (already a booming black-market commodity) and other sought-after items could boost organised crime as networks step in to supply demand.
The ability of the police and an under-resourced military to maintain order and ensure public safety during the lockdown depends on their rapid preparedness for a completely new mission. It also depends on their public credibility. With a population reaching around 60 million, security officials won’t cope with widespread disorder or rebellion especially if they lack public support. In recent years public trust in the police has declined as a result of widespread corruption and brutality.
Events since the lockdown took effect on 26 March confirm that policing the new regulations may be one of the country’s major challenges in responding to COVID-19. Police have already used whips, rubber bullets and water cannons against people not following lockdown instructions. There is a risk of further conflicts as communities grow frustrated at the disruption to their lives and their inability to work and feed their families.
The likelihood of public disorder as a result of these factors may change depending on the extent to which COVID-19 overwhelms the health system, and the severity of food shortages because of lockdown. Widespread illness in the police and military may reduce their ability to respond effectively to public disorder.
Fortunately there is recognition by President Cyril Ramaphosa, and more recently by Cele, that the police need to be more compassionate and focus on building relationships with the communities they serve.
Ultimately though, the virus could bring South Africans closer together. Recognition of the need to work collectively to tackle a common threat may build social cohesion, as new networks and partnerships form across class and race, and between the public, private and civil society sectors. If this eventually brings a better distribution of resources to the poor, and the much-needed reform of the criminal justice system, it could improve public safety in South Africa in the future.
Gareth Newham, Head, Justice and Violence Prevention, ISS and Anton du Plessis, Executive Director, ISS
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: Roger Sedres/Alamy Live News