Solving the crime problem: what South Africans really think

Many South Africans believe that crime is on the increase. Most people also believe that solving crime in the country does not rest with the criminal justice sector alone, but also requires improved social and economic development.

Fortunately, there is data to back up this view, namely the South African National Victims of Crime Survey (VOCS), which is regularly undertaken by Statistics South Africa (Stats SA). The aim of the survey is to elicit the views and experiences of 31 390 households across the country on topics related to crime and criminal justice. The objective is to provide policymakers with a better understanding of the extent and nature of different crime types, the impact it has on victims and public perceptions of the performance of the criminal justice system.

The most recent findings for the period April 2013 to March 2014 were released in December 2014. These findings reflect the same trends contained in the annual police crime statistics that were released last year in September, most importantly that there has been an increase in many violent crime categories over the past two years. Overall, the survey found that more households (41%) believed violent crime to have increased in the past year, while far fewer thought that it had either decreased (32%) or remained stable (27%).

Respondents feared housebreaking the most (60%) followed by home robbery (50%), street robbery (40%), murder (37%), sexual assault (31%), pick-pocketing (26%) and assault (24%).

Some crime categories are notoriously under-reported

Out of the most three most populous provinces, the Western Cape had the highest level of fear of crime (1 776 households per 10 000 population) – to the extent that it may prevent people from leaving their homes to go to work or town; as compared with Gauteng (1 457 households per 10 000) and KwaZulu-Natal (1 216 households per 10 000 population). Interestingly, Northern Cape households were the most fearful (1 889 households per 10 000 population) and the lowest rates were in Limpopo (634 per 10 000) and the Free State (838 per 10 000).

The 2013/14 survey also confirms that reporting rates vary greatly by crime type. Traditionally, murders have high reporting rates because bodies can be counted. Most motor vehicle thefts are reported because insurance companies require case numbers to process insurance claims. The VOCS households indicated that 92% of all car thefts were reported and 89% of all murders. Other crime categories, however, are notoriously under-reported.

For instance, 54% of respondents did not report cases of assault to the police. Reasons for non-reporting included, among others, that the victim solved the issue themselves (22%), ‘other reasons’ (18,5%) and that it was not serious enough (10%).

Solving crime does not rest exclusively with the criminal justice system

Given the low reporting rates for certain crime categories, Stats SA stated that ‘the prevalence and under-reporting of crime incidents to the South African Police Service (SAPS) remain a major concern in the country. It is important to measure the extent of crime and gain insights about its dynamics in order to better understand how it manifests itself in communities. This will enable better formulation, implementation and monitoring of strategies for prevention of crime and management.’

That the government does not appear to be on top of the crime situation could be the reason why there was a decline in the number of households who were satisfied with the police. Households that reported being generally satisfied with the police in their areas decreased from 62,4% in 2012 to 59,2% in 2014. In contrast, 40,8% of respondents were dissatisfied with the police.

Satisfaction levels are highest in the Eastern Cape (66%) and Western Cape (64%) and lowest in Mpumalanga (55%) and North West (51%). While it is positive that a majority of households still report being satisfied with the police, the overall decline in satisfaction is concerning.

Households were slightly more satisfied with the performance of the courts than with the police: 64,3% of respondents said they were satisfied with the courts, compared to 63,7% in 2012.

Yet most South Africans do not believe that solving crime rests exclusively with the criminal justice system. When asked where government should spend money to reduce crime, a majority of households (64%) said it should be on social or economic development. Only 20% thought that more money should be spent on law enforcement and 16% believed it should be spent on the courts.

An integrated national crime statistics system is expected to be implemented by 2017

The notion that households do not rely solely on the police for their safety is quite apparent in the survey findings. Half of the households implemented physical measures to protect their homes (such as installing security gates and alarm systems), while 12% relied on private security, 7% belonged to a ‘self-help group’ and only 5% took to carrying a weapon for protection.

The VOCS findings provide a welcome addition to the body of information available to understand crime and violence in South Africa. Currently, the way in which police release their statistics does not provide detail on how crimes like murder are committed, and who is most at risk. For the government to best utilise its resources to reduce crime and violence, this kind of information is crucial.

While there are rich sources of information on crime in South Africa, they continue to be underutilised. The SAPS have a vast amount of information about crime reported to them that could be used for developing effective multi-agency crime reduction strategies. Currently however, the statistics released by the SAPS are not vetted and approved by the Statistician General. Without independently recognised collection and verification processes, these statistics are open to question and cannot be regarded as official.

According to Stats SA’s 2012 VOCS presentation, an integrated national crime statistics system is expected to be implemented by 2017 after Stats SA, in partnership with SAPS, will complete their assessment of SAPS’s current data collection system. Hopefully Stats SA, with proper funding and cooperation from security cluster departments such as SAPS, will be instrumental in the development of an integrated national crime statistics system that is responsive to the needs of not only policymakers, but also communities and the public.

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