The surprising solution to SA's violent crime problem


The recent crime statistics make for grim reading with regards to public safety in South Africa. The increase in murder over the past four years is clear evidence of this.

The solution to our high, and increasing, levels of violence does not lie in the hands of the police alone. While the police play an important role in tackling certain types of crime, and in responding when crime has already happened, they cannot address social and individual factors that lay the basis for violence and criminality.

Substantial and sustainable reductions in violence require a long-term strategy involving agencies outside of the criminal justice system to take the lead.

Research has long revealed that there is a clear link between childhood abuse and neglect and exposure to violence, and later violent and aggressive behaviour. The trauma experienced by abused and neglected children, is likely to have a negative impact on their well-being and can be linked to behavioural challenges later in life.

Children who become violent men are mostly victims themselves

Not every child who is abused or neglected becomes a violent criminal. But, you will find every gun-wielding criminal has multiple experienced adversities. 

A monograph released by the Institute for Security Studies last year named Beaten bad: The life stories of violent offenders, identifies, describes and analyses the factors that lead offenders to commit – and repeat – violent crime.

Based on interviews with incarcerated repeat violent offenders, the study provided detailed data on their life histories. By identifying risk indicators and appropriate interventions, the findings offer concrete, long-term ways of reducing violent crime in South Africa.

The findings showed that the foundations for violence and criminality are laid one to two decades before society feels the effects. Children who become violent men are mostly victims themselves – of trauma, racism, bullying, corporal punishment and brutalising institutions. Their families are often dysfunctional or broken and they continually encounter adults who reinforce their distrust of authority figures, and lead them further into crime.

Our best chance of preventing violent crime is to ensure that children are warmly cared for

These offenders’ experiences of violence were not restricted to discrete settings. Violence experienced at home was mirrored at school and in their communities – and each of these experiences of violence had a compounding effect. Exposure to domestic violence also had a serious impact on respondents’ lives and educational outcomes.

The combination of structural violence (e.g. high levels of poverty, lack of access to quality education) and physical violence, in the absence of warm, trusting relationships, is shown to cause complex trauma and lay the basis for further violence.

Simple dualities such as victim and perpetrator serve little use in this context. The stories of these men’s lives show that the best chance we have of preventing violent crime is to ensure that infants and children are not exposed to violence or toxic stress at home, and are warmly cared for. It is equally important to ensure that children are protected from violence at school.

Research points to a close link between parental stress and children’s aggression, depression and anxiety. Programmes that assist caregivers to manage their own stress, keep children safe and promote good communication between children and their caregivers have proven effectiveness in preventing violent behaviour.

Similarly, safe school environments that prevent and respond to bullying – and where positive discipline is used in the place of corporal punishment – are critical to efforts to prevent violence and increase the ability of children to learn effectively.

Safe school environments are critical to efforts to prevent violence

Such programmes exist and are being implemented in communities by non-governmental organisations (NGOs), in some cases with support from the Department of Social Development.

The recently released Optimus study showed that one in three children in South Africa face physical or sexual abuse. There needs to be a significant scale-up of these programmes – and this requires effective collaboration between government, academics and NGOs.

By the time the criminal justice system engages with men who are set on a trajectory of violent offending, it is too late to ensure a dramatic change without considerable investment, and even then the success rate is low.

Limiting the factors that lead to violence is our best chance of ensuring that we can look forward to living in safety. The way in which we respond to children who experience violence, neglect and abuse today will determine the level of violence we will experience 10 years from now.

Chandré Gould, Senior Research Fellow, Governance, Crime and Justice Division, ISS Pretoria

Picture: ©Chandré Gould/ISS

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