Is South Africa an inherently violent country?


Violence in South Africa has captured national and international headlines with the recent deaths of Anine Booysen, Reeva Steenkamp and Mido Macie in very different but equally senseless circumstances. President Jacob Zuma stated before parliament on 7 March 2013 that ‘South Africa is not a violent country; it is certain people in our country who are violent. By and large, we are not; we are peace-loving people.’ The international media has, however, been portraying South Africa as an inherently violent place. One example is Alex Perry’s feature in the 11 March edition of Time magazine titled ‘Oscar Pistorius and South Africa’s culture of violence’. Are these recent cases isolated or do we indeed live in a violent society?

This is not an easy question to answer, but we do have some indicators as to the scale of the violence taking place in South Africa. According to the 2012 National Victims of Crime Survey, almost two-thirds of households believed that violent crime levels had increased or stayed the same in their area since 2009. Households feared home robbery (49,8%), street robbery (39,6%), murder (38,8%), sexual attacks (29,8%) and assault (23,6%). This reveals that a significant percentage of South Africans across the demographic spectrum fear falling victim to some type of violent incident.

Perceptions about crime are important, but the clearest indicator of how South Africa compares to other countries when it comes to violence is the murder rate. This is the most comparable of crime indicators and reveals that during 2011/12 there were 30,9 murders per 100 000 people. This means that South Africa has a murder rate four and a half times the international average, which is 6,9 murders per 100 000. It is important, however, to recognise that we have been becoming less violent over time. Since 1994, the murder rate has decreased by 54%. Moreover, during the past decade, from 2002/03 to 2011/12, the total recorded violent crime rate has decreased by 32,2%. South Africa is therefore a far safer society than ten years ago, but a lot more needs to be done before the country becomes as safe as many other societies in the world.

Other important statistics are those that show who is most at risk of falling victim to violence. While there are challenges with the South African Police Service’s (SAPS) crime statistics, they do provide some insights. The official statistics for 2011/12 show that 29,9% of all serious crimes were violent, with the breakdown as follows:

Therefore, South Africans are 24 times more likely to be assaulted than murdered. Furthermore, robberies make up a quarter of all recorded violent crime. This means that in three out of four cases, violent crimes occur in conditions that do not involve a robbery, but rather interpersonal violence (murder, attempted murder, assault or rape). It is worth bearing in mind, however, that the actual amount of violence is much higher than that which is reported to the police. The 2011 National Victims of Crime Survey found that fewer than half (49,4%) of those assaulted reported the incident to the police.

So, under which circumstances do violent crimes occur? Interestingly, we are far less likely to be the victims of violence at the hands of a stranger than at the hands of someone we know. According to the SAPS, 20% of victims were murdered by relatives and over 40% were murdered by friends or acquaintances. In 80% of murders, the victims knew the perpetrator. Although there are six male victims for every woman murdered, the Medical Research Council (MRC) found that in 2009 over half of women (58%) were murdered by their intimate partners.

The SAPS analysis of violent crime dockets shows that alcohol consumption or substance abuse appears to be an important factor when it comes to victimisation. One in three male murder victims (31,1%) had consumed alcohol or drugs compared to 17% of female victims. The 2011/12 SAPS Annual Report reported that 80,3% of murder victims were adult males, 14,6% were adult females and 5,1% were children (under the age of 18). The SAPS also suggested that two in three murders (65%) started off as assaults stemming from arguments that got out of control due to the consumption of alcohol or drugs. This is supported by SAPS data that found most murders, serious assaults and rapes occurred over weekends (mostly Saturdays) and during pay day periods. Only 15,9% of murders occurred during the commission of another crime such as a street robbery, hijacking, or house or business robbery. This suggests that a majority of violent crimes take place when we socialise or when arguments occur between acquaintances, friends, relatives or partners. Therefore most violent crime does not start off during the commission of a crime committed by start-up or career criminals, but is perpetrated by people with whom we interact on a daily basis.

Police data further suggests that people classified as white or Asian are far less likely to be murdered than those classified as African or Coloured. It is important to note, however, that it is not a person’s racial classification that determines the likelihood of victimisation but rather socio-economic status. African people as a group tend to live in the worst economic circumstances and therefore are more at risk of falling victim to violent crime.

Violence is also not equally spread across the country and some areas record higher rates than others. When comparing provinces, the murder rate per 100 000 people is higher than the national murder rate (30,9) in the Eastern Cape (48), Western Cape (43,5), Free State (34,9), Northern Cape (33,6) and KwaZulu-Natal (31,6). This means that as far as provinces go, one is less likely to be murdered in Gauteng, North West, Mpumalanga and Limpopo than in the other provinces.

It is important to note that there are also big differences in the levels of violence within each province. For instance, in the Western Cape during 2011/12, almost half (48%) of the murders occurred in ten police precincts (6,7%) out of the 149 police precincts in the province. These high-violence precincts are almost all located on the so-called Cape Flats, where socio-economic conditions are harsh and substance abuse is rife. Incidents of murder are rare in other police precincts such as Camps Bay and Rondebosch, which are often more affluent and stable in terms of population growth.

In summary, South African violent crime is most likely to occur in a social situation among relatives, partners, friends or acquaintances. Arguments often escalate into violence when fuelled by alcohol or drugs. Adult men (most likely African or Coloured) are far more likely to be the victims of murder. Most female murder victims die at the hands of their partners. And dire socio-economic conditions make certain communities far more susceptible to violence than others.  

Lizette Lancaster, Crime and Justice Hub Manager, Governance Crime and Justice Division, ISS Pretoria

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