Bheki Cele: Looking for solutions. Picture: Sandile Ndlovu/Sowetan
Bheki Cele: Looking for solutions. Picture: Sandile Ndlovu/Sowetan

There are few countries in which the release of the annual crime statistics is a major calendar event. But, then, there are few countries that boast of 20,336 murders in one year.

Announcing the murder statistic — a record high — police minister Bheki Cele said the number is close to that of a war zone, with almost 57 people killed on an average day.

To place SA’s murder rate in context, look at the past 10 years: no fewer than 175,364 people have died since 2008 — enough to fill FNB Stadium to near capacity twice over. That’s more people than have died in the Afghanistan war (about 144,000) or in the atomic bombing of Hiroshima during World War 2 (about 135,000).

So "war zone" does seem appropriate.

The places where the battle has been most intense are also enumerated in the statistics. The police station where most murders were reported is Nyanga in the Western Cape, followed by Umlazi in KwaZulu-Natal. The places gangs rule with the gun and knife, such as the Western Cape’s Philippi East, Delft and Khayelitsha, are in the top 10, along with Mthatha and Mfuleni.

The police also made available a horrifying list of murderers’ weapons of choice. It includes firearms (6,551 murders), knives (4,868) and sharp objects (1,759). Perhaps more frightening is the fact that pangas were used to hack 90 people to death, 76 people were killed with axes, and a further 72 were beaten to death with sjamboks.

The number of sexual offences was also up (now above the 50,000 threshold), as were cash-in-transit heists (238 cases compared with 152 over the 2016/2017 year).

Cele, perhaps overwhelmed by the sheer volume of crime, tried to focus on what has to be done to overcome this epidemic. "Crime stats are nothing to write home about … our emphasis is [on] what should be done‚ rather than the crime stats … the example I have all the time is it doesn’t matter what figures you put [out]‚ if you cannot deal with murder cases it will not bring any joy to South Africans."

This is the right focus. The police need to be dragged out of the political theatre and back into the business of dedicated crime fighting — which means a much higher rate of arrests and convictions.

The real problem is that criminals — and not the ANC, EFF or anybody else — rule the streets. Taking the streets back will require a declaration of war and a force that is up to the fight.