Safe as houses: what do we know about home robberies in South Africa?


Home robberies barely make the news anymore in South Africa, unless someone is seriously injured. For example, a short article from SAPA on 17 April 2013 with the headline ‘2 injured in Daveyton robbery’ provides little detail about the two people who were shot and badly injured when intruders broke into their home to steal their television set. According to the 2012 National Victims of Crime Survey (NVCS), half of households surveyed feared this type of crime. ‘Home robbery’, unlike ‘house breaking’ (burglary), is regarded as a violent crime because people are at home when it takes place. This puts people at risk of personal injury and emotional trauma in the place where they should feel safest. This is why home robbery fuels fear across many communities.

But what do we know about home robberies in South Africa? Much of what we do know comes from data collected by the South African Police Service (SAPS) and the National Victims of Crime Surveys (NVCS), undertaken by Statistics South Africa.

We know that house robbery is a growing problem across most provinces. Official crime figures show that home robbery increased nationally by 64,4% in the past eight years and appears to have stabilised at a high rate. In latest crime statistics for 2011/12, a total of 16 766 home robberies were recorded. This is a slight reduction of 0,7% when compared to the previous year’s figure of 16 889 incidents. Although Gauteng is the hardest hit with 38% of the national total (6 336), it was one of only two provinces, the other being KwaZulu-Natal, that recorded decreases in the past year (10% and 6,2% respectively). Most of the other provinces experienced notable increases, such as 117% in the Northern Cape, 42.3% in Limpopo, 12,3% in the Eastern Cape and 10,6% in the Western Cape.

While this crime drives a lot of fear, it is a relatively rare occurrence. The 2012 NVCS found that only 4,5% of households experienced at least one home robbery between January 2007 and December 2011. Overall, only 61,4% of affected households reported the incident to the police. The decision whether to report the incident depended heavily on the severity of robbery. For example, in cases where a person was injured, 83% reported the matter to the police. When nobody was injured, only 56% of incidents were reported. Almost half of those who failed to report did not believe the police could or would do anything about the incident.

According to analysis undertaken by the SAPS and published in its annual reports, 75% of home robberies occur at night, with the most vulnerable times being in the late evening between 21:00 and 23:59 and very early morning between 00:00 and 02:59. More than half (55%) of home robberies take place at these times, in all likelihood because people’s guards are down when they are relaxing or asleep. Two-thirds (66%) of home robberies are committed by small groups of two to three robbers. Most robbers were said to be males between 15 and 34 years of age.

Weapons were used in almost all cases (99,9%) by those committing home robberies. Interestingly, the 2012 NVCS data revealed that firearms were only used in a quarter of cases and knives were present in a further quarter. Police statistics indicate a higher level of firearm use compared to the NVCS: SAPS docket analysis shows that three in every four home robberies (77%) were committed with firearms. This discrepancy may say more about reporting patterns than the nature of the crime: it is possible that the presence of a firearm increases the likelihood of the incident being reported to the police as. The SAPS found that in 56% of cases, robbers gained access to the premises by forcing the victims to let them into the house. In just over 40% of cases the perpetrators managed to gain access to the premises and surprised the victims. In 4% of cases the robbers were let into the home by the victim, who didn’t realise that they were criminals.

The 2012 NCVS found that 80% of households did not resist the intruders. Those who resisted were more likely to suffer injuries. Of those who resisted, 40% were injured, and of those who didn’t resist, only 13% were injured. Overall, injuries were sustained in 20% of cases. In half of these cases, someone was admitted to hospital but no deaths were reported. An earlier Institute for Security Studies brief on home robbery, ('Understanding and Preventing Home Invasion in SA'), provided more detail of the 2007/2008 SAPS analysis of 1 000 home robbery dockets. The analysis found that:

These figures show that in a vast majority of home robberies, the victims were left physically unharmed although no doubt emotionally traumatised.

The SAPS is seemingly able to identify many of the perpetrators, given that 10 844 people were arrested for home robberies over the past two years. In 2011/2012, 923 cases involving 1 093 counts of house robbery were finalised by the courts.

Nevertheless, the 2012 NVCS shows that of the victims who report the crime to the police, less than half (41,1%) were satisfied with their performance. More victims (48%) were satisfied with the performance of the uniformed police who are usually the first to attend the scene than with the performance of the detectives (26% of victims were satisfied). This may be because most of these crimes are not solved and the stolen goods were recovered in only 10% of cases.

Professor Rudolph Zinn in his book Home invasion: robbers disclose what you should know interviewed 30 convicted home robbers. He found that most home robberies were planned meticulously. ‘The victims were targeted because of their wealth. Other demographical factors such as race played no part in decisions of the perpetrators to target specific households.’ The reasons for targeting certain homes and neighbourhoods were largely influenced by the availability of informants and perceptions of the family’s affluence.

Zinn’s research also identified measures that individual households could take to minimise the risk of their particular residence becoming a target. These measures included multiple security layers such as perimeter security, security lights, CCTV systems, alarm systems and even the presence of small dogs inside the home. However, determined and well-organised perpetrators can overcome all of these security measures.

The increase in home robbery has occurred because perpetrators see it as a high-gain low-risk undertaking. The only way that these crimes will be reduced is if the risk of going to jail for committing these robberies increases significantly. This will only happen if there are improvements in crime intelligence, investigations and forensic capacity, along with greater collaboration between the police and prosecutors.

Lizette Lancaster, Manager of the Crime and Justice Hub, ISS Pretoria


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