How safe is South Africa over the festive season?

Levels of serious crime spike each year in December. But police statistics aren't detailed and current enough to enable accurate responses and prevention.

After six years of recording annual decreases in murder, the latest South African statistics for the 2012/13 financial year show a notable increase in the murder rate. A total of 650 more murders were recorded by the South African Police Service (SAPS) than in the previous year, which works out to almost two more murders every day on average.

In addition, the police recorded increases in a majority of other violent crimes that South Africans fear most, such as attempted murder and most categories of robbery. There were 1 504 more attempted murders, 4 684 more aggravated robberies and 16 582 more burglaries during this period than the previous year. This means that on a daily basis in 2012/13, an average of 45 people were murdered, 49 homes were attacked by armed gangs and 718 homes were burgled.

While these figures show the average annual and daily picture, crime patterns change quite substantially from one month to the next. The bad news is that violent and property crimes tend to increase substantially during the festive season when compared with the rest of the year.

An analysis of the monthly national crime data for the five years from April 2006 to March 2011 reveals that murder and serious assault increase by as much as 50% during December each year, while incidents of burglary increase by 8%. House robberies increase in the months leading up to the festive season, starting in October and remaining high in December, until dropping by about 11% in January.

It is for this reason that the SAPS launched its annual national festive season operations – ‘Vas Vat’ and ‘Tsilela’ –in the Western Cape on 21 November 2013. These operations will target drug dens, shebeens and taverns and will include roadblocks to crack down on drunk driving, among other offences. Police patrols will also be conducted in crime hotspots. On 25 November the SA Council of Shopping Centres announced that security at shopping malls would be increased over the festive period.

There are a number of reasons why crime rates increase over the festive season. Traditionally, this time of year sees more consumption of alcohol and other recreational drugs. SAPS research shows that most cases of violence occur when acquaintances, friends or family members have arguments that spiral out of control, especially when people are under the influence of alcohol or drugs. In many cases, crime hotspots are therefore nightclubs, taverns, shebeens or, most notably, the homes of victims or perpetrators. For example, research by the Medical Research Council (MRC) shows that 56% of female murder victims are killed by their husbands or boyfriends.

Criminals follow opportunities in terms of people and places. In the case of house burglaries, the opportunity is greater when people are away at work or on holiday. House robberies are also more likely to occur over the summer holidays when people tend to let their guard down and spend more time outside with their doors open.

Although the available data allows inferences to be drawn about why crime spikes over the festive season, there are no accurate statistics to properly explain this trend. We do know what the year-on-year crime statistics are for the various police station precincts because these are published annually on the SAPS website. What we do not know is where the crime hotspots are within these areas. These station statistics do not provide us with enough information to gage on a monthly or weekly basis which crimes are on the increase or decrease in various neighbourhoods.

Similarly, the way in which the crime statistics are released (once a year and six months out of date) does not allow people to identify which crimes are on the increase at holiday destinations. South Africans and visitors alike do not have access to up-to-date and relevant local crime information to help safeguard themselves and their families. This uncertainty and feeling of helplessness fuels fear of crime, increases spending on private security, sophisticated security systems and firearms, and may contribute to increases in incidents of vigilantism.

Crime rates (per 100 000 population) for stations are also not released. Police station precinct population sizes vary from close to 400 000 people in areas such as Thembisa to fewer than 500 in some precincts in the Eastern Cape. This makes it very difficult to compare the currently available police station-level crime statistics with one another.

The ISS calculated the 2011 census information for each of the police precincts using the small area data released by Statistics South Africa. Based on this information the ISS was able to determine the crime rates for each of the 1 133 police stations. These crime rates allow for better comparison of crime statistics among different stations because the size of the population is standardised; that is, crime rates reflect the number of crimes per 100 000 people. This method could be useful to help plan resource allocation to stations and the location of new police stations.

However, this method is useful only for areas where crimes have ‘night-time’ residents as potential victims, such as residential burglary and residential robbery. Most other crimes are more likely to have ‘day-time’ potential victims, such as commuters, shoppers or business employees. These areas typically have more business-related crime, street robberies, hijackings, theft and shoplifting. Here the average number of commuters, shoppers, businesses or employees – rather than the number of people living in the area – is very useful data for planning.

Areas that have high numbers of both day and night residents as potential victims typically have higher violent and property crime rates. Central business districts remain the most high-risk areas in the country. These are areas like central Johannesburg, central Durban, central Cape Town and central Pretoria. Many businesses close during the festive season and many households visit holiday destinations or gather at rural homesteads. This means that many of the high-risk areas may become low risk, and areas that are ‘sleepy hollows’ most of the year may become more high risk over the December holiday period.

During the festive season, holidaymakers, visitors and those staying at home should remain vigilant. It is a good idea to discuss the neighbourhood crime situation with the local police, private security companies and community policing structures. Only through greater community involvement can stronger local support structures be built.

Crime tips are available on the SAPS website, in community newspapers or from private security companies. Hopefully, in future the SAPS will release more detailed, current and disaggregated information about crime in the areas where South Africans live, work and vacation. This is fundamental if the country’s people are to be in a position to make their communities safer.

Lizette Lancaster, Manager, Crime and Justice Information Hub and Mpho Mtshali, Intern, Governance, Crime and Justice Division, ISS Pretoria.

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