Picture: REUTERS
Picture: REUTERS

Two weeks ago a UN colleague was murdered in Johannesburg in a car hijacking. His was one of 50 murders in SA that day.  There were 20,000 murders in SA in 2020, one of the highest rates in the world.

To put this into perspective, since the Syrian war began 10 years ago it is estimated that 390,000 people have been killed. In SA in the same period close to half that number have been murdered, about 200,000 people. Rapes and sexual assaults are reported at about 600,000 but this is known to be a significant underestimation.

These are “wartime” figures, but shockingly, they actually represent a reduction. In 1994 SA’s murder rate was about 67 per 100,000 people, according to the Institute for Security Studies (ISS). Numbers did then decrease until 2012, when they started to steadily increase again. The ISS Crime Hub forecasts an upward trajectory.

Apart from the personal misery attached to each of these crimes, there is wider damage. Crime frightens off investors, drives up skilled emigration (the educated are the first to leave), places an additional cost burden on the state and businesses, and tourists (10% plus of GDP) are reluctant to visit.

The countries with the highest murder rates (VenezuelaPapua New GuineaSAAfghanistanHonduras, Trinidad & Tobago, BrazilGuyanaEl SalvadorSyria) share similar characteristics. Many experienced civil war and ethnic conflicts. Poverty and joblessness intertwine with these in all of them.

In SA unemployment and inequality are a big part of the problem. Joblessness cascades down and creates a whole range of spin-off social problems. Officially, 6.7-million people are unemployed in SA, which is 29% of everybody who could be working. By the expanded definition, more than 10-million are unemployed, 38.5% of people who could be working. This is the highest jobless rate recorded in the country since Stats SA’s first quarterly labour force survey in 2008.

What to do? Targeting job rich (and high growth) sectors such as tourism can help. Tackling structural issues. The spatial legacy and poor transport system are awful legacies of apartheid that have not been tackled yet. Taxis in this country are expensive, dangerous and, despite their ubiquity, contribute little to the exchequer. An efficient, safe and cost-effective transport network would solve many problems at once. Raising education and skills levels is a longer-term effort but no less critical. Fresh ways to look at skill diffusion and recognition need to be considered. Teachers can co-ordinate learning rather than emitting it, and that can increase its quality.

But crime also needs to be dealt with in a structural way in terms of the crisis it is. A number of Latin American cities, such as Bogotá and Medellín in Colombia and Rio de Janeiro in Brazil, have successfully reduced violent crime rates. There is much to learn from their experiences of building local frameworks, gun-free zones, fostering civic culture to reduce violence, and focusing on hotspots. Most successful approaches have been accompanied by soft-side measures such as urban upgrading, better urban planning, situational prevention and especially early childhood intervention. Gender-based violence is especially high in SA, and special measures are needed to tackle it. But the vast majority of killings are by men on men. 

Advances in technology can also help. Many types of crime are nonrandom, even predictable. With some exceptions they tend to cluster in time, space and among specific population groups. With access to real-time data — whether generated by crime-mapping platforms, gunshot-detection systems, CCTV or smart lights — authorities can get better at detecting crime before it occurs.

Fighting these two other pandemics in the country — unemployment and crime — needs to be done in tandem. The economic argument for investing in crime reduction is strong. According to the Global Peace index,  violent crime consumes as much as 19% of SA’s GDP. This is a huge drain on scarce resources.

Tackling joblessness is a harder draw, but if nearly 40% of the population is not working it does not take a genius to see the dreadful waste. Fixing it is hard and long-term, but a good starting point would be for every decision by the government to be looked at through an employment lens. Does this decision do anything to hurt job growth and the private sector’s capacity to create them? That should be the question every minister and official asks. If it does, reconsider.

In the short term, investing in tackling these twin pandemics will cost, but in the long run it is the cheapest of options.

• Rynhart is a specialist in employers’ activities with the International Labour Organisation, based in SA. He is author of ‘Colouring the Future: Why the UN Plan to End Poverty and Wars is Working’.

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