Police Minister Bheki Cele during the 2017/2018 crime statistics briefing in parliament, September 11 2018. Picture: ESA ALEXANDER
Police Minister Bheki Cele during the 2017/2018 crime statistics briefing in parliament, September 11 2018. Picture: ESA ALEXANDER

Police minister Bheki Cele’s statement that the murder rate approximates that of a war zone captures exactly what one should think about the crime statistics released on Tuesday. We are a society at war with itself.

With 57 people murdered a day — an increase of 6.9% on 2017 — and 109 people reporting rape daily, this is a frightening place to live. The broad trend of the past year is an increase in murder and rape, a very large increase in the murder of women and children and an increase in attempted murder.

Assault crimes and common and aggravated robbery declined slightly in the 12 months to March 2018.

Cash-in-transit heists and bank robberies stand out. Both spiked over the 12-month period, with heists climbing 57% to 238 incidents and trending upwards. Bank robberies also rose sharply from three in 2017-2018 to 13 over the past year, possibly as police shifted resources to deal with in-transit heists.

The 30 police stations reporting the highest number of murders are all in township or inner-city communities.

There are two dimensions that need examination: the problem with policing and the problem with society.

The policing one is easier to define and perhaps to solve too. We know that during the Jacob Zuma era, two very important parts of the police were stripped of their efficacy: the Crime Intelligence Division and the Hawks, the directorate for priority crime. The capture of these divisions by corrupt and politically beholden police and the hollowing out of their capacity to investigate has given organised crime a free pass in SA.

It is not surprising, therefore, that certain categories of crime became much more lucrative and much less risky. The success of cash-in-transit robberies, say researchers, is due to police involvement at the highest levels. It is also conducted by highly organised criminal gangs that cannot be combated in the normal run of things.

Other crimes perpetrated by organised crime and which require intelligence to prevent or investigate — such as taxi violence — have also flourished. Police efficacy is particularly key: where there are no arrests and prosecutions of hitmen, the cycle spirals sharply.

Since the start of 2018, President Cyril Ramaphosa has moved quickly to place respected police officers in the critical posts in the Hawks and Crime Intelligence. There is also a respected career officer in the position of national commissioner and in the person of Cele, a committed and common-sense minister.

But all this will take time to turn around. We may not even see much of an improvement in next year’s crime stats, but we can expect that with more effective leadership, the police will be more effective.

Fixing society will be harder. It is true of any society that poorer communities, where deprivation is high and abuse of alcohol and drugs more prevalent, will bear the brunt of social crimes. The 30 police stations reporting the highest number of murders are all in township or inner-city communities. Eight of the top 10 are police stations in the Cape Town area, where high levels of gang activity — the biggest motive for murder — are present, along with taxi violence and interpersonal crime.

In SA, though, our problem is bigger than the spin-off of deprivation and substance abuse. Poor communities are under high stress not just from extremely high unemployment and poverty, but other social dynamics such as dysfunctional schooling, rapid urbanisation, rapid immigration and violent crime.

The second most likely motive for murder, say the police statistics, is mob justice, where communities take the law into their own hands and kill the perpetrators. This is in large part a failure of policing. But its also a social failure, where the basic moral precepts such as "thou shalt not kill" no longer hold.

It is the same dynamic that makes it acceptable to rob foreign shop owners and perhaps even kill them, or to burn public property in a protest, or set trains alight.

These are things policing cannot fix.

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