Fikile Mbalula. Picture: REUTERS/SIPIWE SIBEKO
Fikile Mbalula. Picture: REUTERS/SIPIWE SIBEKO

Police Minister Fikile Mbalula is right about one thing: South Africans are not feeling any decrease in crime, despite the latest annual crime statistics suggesting a general 1.8% year-on-year decline.

Perhaps one of the reasons South Africans are not feeling the decline is because the crime that has seized public attention over the past two years, corruption, has seen practically zero police activity. A year-and-a-half after the public protector issued her "state capture" report, implicating a range of people in crimes that approach treason, nothing has happened.

That lack of action sets the scene for the larger crime picture. South Africans have known for years that crime is out of control. The police are trying to stop a flood with a beach bucket. A small decline in the total number is really meaningless because the overall rate is so high. That’s probably the second reason why a small decline is difficult to feel.

A good example is the murder rate, which is a useful benchmark because the majority of murders get reported and have a visible and enduring consequence.

Technically, the murder rate — the number of murders per thousand of the population – is down if you compare the 2007-08 figures with the 2017-18 figures.

A SMALL DECLINE IN THE TOTAL NUMBER IS REALLY MEANINGLESS BECAUSE THE RATE IS SO HIGH.

But the degree of decline is tiny: 37.6 per thousand in 2007 compared with 34.1 in 2017. And that, of course, means the absolute number of murders is up: 18,400 to 19,016 over the matching period. This is about 52 murders a day. How does any police force deal with that?

The Institute of Race Relations points out that this murder rate is five times higher than in Mexico, 10 times higher than in India and about 30 times that of any of the prominent European countries. Most people might assume that Colombia, notoriously connected with the drug trade, would have a higher murder rate than SA. They would be wrong. Colombia’s murder rate is a third lower than SA’s. About half-a-million South Africans have lost their lives violently since 1994. That is approaching civil war levels.

The third reason why South Africans do not feel a decrease in crime is that the types that have increased tend to be those that touch people directly and personally. For example, the biggest year-on-year increase was in carjacking. Robbery of all types was also heavily up. Crimes that decreased included bank robberies, which have all but disappeared, and arson.

Clearly, behind these numbers we can see changes in the effectiveness of security measures and how crime is mutating to deal with those changes.

For example, car theft is becoming more and more difficult as car manufacturers take more care with vehicle security. But the sad consequence is that thieves are now forced to try and steal cars while passengers are still in them, and that is why car theft is static, but carjacking is up.

The news is not uniformly bad. Sexual offences are down, as is assault. Unfortunately, the decline in sexual offences is so radical that it is suspicious. There is some evidence that police officers are becoming reluctant to register sexual offences, which are often difficult to prove, in an effort to manage their investigation load and statistics.

One new worry is the increase in drug-related offences, which exploded in the past year. Drug arrests in Limpopo, the worst-affected province, increased 27% in a single year. Total drug arrests have trebled since 2007.

The management of crime by the government has been particularly poor, but at least one big mistake has been reversed — the decision to scrap specialised units. Two new specialised units, dealing with illegal firearms and drugs, have been created, and that constitutes a small step forward.

All this has been happening while SA lacks a national commissioner of police and a head of crime intelligence. South Africans have become inured to the high level of crime, but by leaving the top posts open, the government is exacerbating a national tragedy.

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