President Zuma ignores increasing violent crime in his state of the nation address

2015-02-23

The state of the nation speech is an opportunity for the sitting president of South Africa to build confidence in the government and rally collective action to address key challenges.

When it comes to citizen safety however, it is worrying that President Jacob Zuma had very little to say about the growing levels of violent crime. Particularly when the government’s stated objective is to, ‘ensure that all people in South Africa are and feel safe.’

Anyone who is sincerely concerned with the safety of all South Africans would take a close look at the available statistics on murders, sexual offences and robberies. These are the violent crimes that have the biggest impact on people’s lives and determine how safe people feel, particularly those who are poor or vulnerable.

Had the president looked as such figures, he would have been immediately aware that the number of people being murdered is growing at an alarming rate. The South African Police Service reported that 17 068 had been murdered in the most recent statistics available for 2013/14. This is 1 459 more murder victims than what was recorded two years previously in 2011/12. That four more people were being murdered every day on average across South Africa in this period should have raised his eyebrows; particularly as murder has decreased by over 50% since 1994.

If anything, assault has remained stable and is not in reality decreasing

Murder is our most reliable statistic – as most cases can be verified, given there is a dead body. Therefore, when the murder rate starts to increase substantially, the government should pay close attention to the causes.

SAPS docket analysis has previously found that that most murders occur after an escalation of assault between two people. Further, most murders occur as the result of young men, usually under the age of 30, getting into a dispute that escalates into physical violence and results in a killing. This is why there are at least six male murder victims for every one female victim. This situation is not unique to South Africa, and is the reason for most murders in many countries. However, in South Africa, murders against women and children have also been increasing. Why is this the case?

Given the close link between assault and murder, both crime categories should have shown an increase. However, police reported that assault rates are declining substantially. The most recent police statistics show that in the same two-year period that murders substantially increased, there have been almost 24 000 fewer assaults reported to the police.

What could explain a situation in which such a large decrease in assaults would not lead to a reduction in the number of murders? One possibility is that assaults are not actually decreasing, but rather that fewer victims of assaults are reporting cases to the police.

The National Victims of Crime Survey (NVCS) undertaken by Statistics South Africa confirms that this is what is happening. The most recent 2014 survey results show that the proportion of assault victims who report their attacks to the police has decreased by 7% since 2011. This probably explains the 7% decline in the total number of assaults recorded by the police over this period, and shows that assault has likely remained stable and is not in reality decreasing.

More and more people are being attacked, with those who use public transport most at risk

The decline in victims of crime reporting cases to the police is not limited to assaults and is far more pronounced when it comes to sexual offences. The 2014 NVCS study also reveals that the number of victims of sexual offences who were willing to report the crime decreased by 21.8% since 2011.

However, SAPS statistics show that since 2011/12, sexual offences against children have only decreased by 10.5%, and against women by 6.5%. It may be on the basis of these statistics that the president said in his state of the nation address that ‘we are making progress in fighting crimes against women and children.’ However, his advisors should have explained that given the large decline in reporting rates for sexual offences, it is unlikely that such crimes have decreased, and in fact they have probably increased.

But why is there such a decline in the number of victims who are willing to report criminal incidents to the police? A likely answer is that public trust in the police is deteriorating. Earlier this year, a survey organisation called Future Fact released a recent study that reveals 75% of adult South Africans agree with the statement ‘a lot of police are criminals themselves.’ Furthermore, 44% think there is ‘no point’ in reporting crime to the police, and one in three people said they are scared of the police. When large numbers of people mistrust or fear the police, they are less likely to report crimes at police stations.

Given that assaults are not actually decreasing but probably staying constant, the president may have asked, why then are murders increasing? This is when his attention should have been turned to the statistics on ‘aggravated robbery’. The police record a case of ‘aggravated robbery’ when a person reports that they been held up and threatened by one or more criminals who were carrying guns or knives, and had something stolen from them. When this type of crime increases, it tends to result in increasing numbers of people getting killed.

We have sufficient resources, experienced people and a range of capabilities to reduce levels of violence

In 2013/14, a total of 119 351 aggravated robberies were reported to the police. This is over 18 000 more armed robberies than were reported to the police since the president appointed a new police commissioner in 2012. Consequently, there are on average 50 more robberies taking place every single day across South Africa than was the situation two years ago. More and more people are being attacked by armed criminals while walking the streets, with those who use public transport most at risk. However, armed gangs are also increasingly attacking people in their homes and workplaces, or hijacking them while driving. As a result, more people are dying.

It is most concerning that the president did not take the nation into his confidence about the escalation of violent crime during his state of the nation speech. Only once there is an acknowledgement of the problem can we all work together to turn the situation around. According to the Institute for Security Studies, we have sufficient resources, many experienced people and a range of capabilities to reduce the levels of violence in our country.

Unfortunately, poor appointments to the senior echelons of the criminal justice system, along with political meddling in the work of these important institutions, have severely undermined the ability of the state to improve citizen safety. The president could change this situation quickly by appointing the most experienced men and women who are known for their integrity to head the police, the prosecuting authority and prisons. They must then be allowed to do their jobs as determined by the constitution and the law without unnecessary interference. The cost of not doing so is now being counted in the increasing loss of lives of men, women and children across our country.

Gareth Newham, Head of the Governance, Crime and Justice Division, ISS Pretoria

Media coverage of this ISS Today:

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