Where do murders occur in South Africa?

Half of the country's murders occur in only 13% of its police precincts. Murder needs to be approached as a social problem requiring much more than a policing solution.

After six years of recording annual decreases in murder, the latest South African statistics for 2012/13 show a worrying increase. A total of 650 more people were murdered in the most recent financial year compared to the year before. This is almost two more murders every day and increases the average daily number of murders from 43 to 45. But where do these murders take place and what lies behind them?

Between April 2011 and March 2012, police recorded more murders in Cape Town than in Johannesburg and Pretoria combined. This means that, taking population into account, Cape Town residents are 1,8 times more likely to be murdered than Johannesburg residents. Yet this information is potentially misleading because the likelihood of being a crime victim depends in large part on race, gender, age, economic profile and where in a city a person lives.

For example, almost two-thirds of the Cape Town murders took place in just ten of the 60 police station precincts in the city, according to an analysis of crime hotspots by the Institute for Security Studies (ISS). For years, Mitchells Plain experienced the highest violence and property crime rates in the country. With the recent surge in gang violence, Mitchells Plain and surrounding areas clearly require in-depth multi-disciplinary interventions.

The Cape Town residential areas of Nyanga, Khayelitsha, Gugulethu and Harare remain the most murderous in the peninsula, according to an analysis that takes population size into account. These areas have experienced abnormally high murder rates for more than a decade.

Similarly, a countrywide analysis of police precinct statistics suggests that income levels matter. Residents in low-income areas are far more likely to be murdered than their middle- and high-income counterparts. Half of South Africa’s murders occurred in only 13% of police precincts (or in 143 out of 1 127).

The focus tends to fall on South Africa’s national murder rate, which is almost five times higher than the global average of 6,9 murders per 100 000 people. However, about 13% of police precincts in South Africa had lower murder rates than this, including affluent areas such as Brooklyn (Pretoria), Garsfontein (Pretoria), Camps Bay, Claremont, Rondebosch (Cape Town), Edenvale and Linden (Gauteng). Over 10% of South African policing precincts – more than 115 stations – experienced no murders, while three in four murders occurred in just a quarter of the country’s police precincts. Suburbs like Sandton, Parkview (Johannesburg), Durban North, Table View and Woodstock (Cape Town) had a murder rate of just under 10 per 100 000 people.

Although murder is often used as the main indicator to support arguments that South Africa is a violent country, it makes up only 2,5% of all violent crime. While there were 16 259 murders in 2012/13, over 600 000 other violent crimes were also reported to the police, including attempted murder, rape, robbery and assault.

When violent crime hotspots are analysed, central business districts remain the most high-risk areas in terms of violence in general, and specifically for robberies. The clear front-runner is Johannesburg Central, followed by Durban Central, Pietermaritzburg, Cape Town Central and Pretoria Central. These areas also experience very high property crime rates.

A vast majority of the murders that take place daily do not make the news. They happen in areas where crime and violence are the norm, and where residents already feel marginalised and forgotten. The majority of murders are neither premeditated nor committed as part of a crime, but occur when an argument leads to physical assault. Research shows that most victims are killed by acquaintances, friends or family members during disputes fuelled by alcohol or drug abuse.

Victimisation surveys, police docket surveys and mortuary surveillance studies reveal that most South African murder victims are young black men. These studies also reveal that most murdered women are killed by their intimate partners, and that men are six times more likely to be killed than women. However, violence affects all South Africans, and the resultant trauma has lasting physical, emotional and often financial consequences. Murder rates are driven by poverty, social ills and society’s general inability to deal with conflict in a non-violent manner. Murder should therefore be seen as a social problem, which cannot be solved by policing alone.

Unfortunately, South Africa does not have a comprehensive strategy that guides government departments, civil society organisations and the public and encourages the implementation of practical ways to reduce interpersonal violence. This means that the police are saddled with an impossible problem to solve.

Violence prevention requires long-term interventions. These may not be easy to sell to a crime-weary public, but are more likely to yield real results in reducing violence. Interventions that focus on improving parenting skills, reducing children’s exposure to violence and building self-esteem are more likely to interrupt the cycle of violence than anything the police can do.

South Africa has a shortage of more than 50 000 social workers, yet almost 70 000 additional police officials have been hired over the past ten years. The government needs to adjust its approach to violence to prevent another ten years being wasted pursuing policies that will not reduce violence.

Fortunately, the National Development Plan recognises the need for a new approach, and emphasises the importance of building community safety in the medium to long term. However, the plan has to be implemented as soon as possible if thousands of lives are to be saved and the full potential of all South Africans is to be realised.

This ISS article was first published on africacheck.org and dailymaverick.co.za.

Lizette Lancaster, Researcher, Governance, Crime and Justice Division, ISS Pretoria

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