Towards safer cities: First national report on urban safety in South Africa

  • 29 Jun 2016 | by Urban Safety Reference Group

Towards safer cities: First national report on urban safety in South Africa – Blog

It is imperative to support and drive an integrated approach to urban safety, drawing on policing and social crime prevention, as well as on social development and built environment interventions.

It is imperative to support and drive an integrated approach to urban safety, drawing on policing and social crime prevention, as well as on social development and built environment interventions.

This article draws extensively from the “State of Urban Safety in South Africa Report 2016” – download the report here

Safety is a cornerstone for realising viable, competitive and sustainable cities in South Africa. Local government – as the primary point of contact between state and communities – needs to be empowered to play a stronger role in driving integrated, long-term urban safety responses.

This requires assistance from national and provincial government in setting up the appropriate fiscal, personnel and organisational systems within local government so that cities can fulfil their responsibilities with regards to violence and crime prevention.

These are some of the key recommendations from the State of Urban Safety in South Africa Report 2016, launched on 29 June 2016 at the inaugural learning exchange of the African Forum for Urban Safety (AFUS) in Durban. The first national report of its kind, it focuses specifically on crime and violence in South Africa in an urban context and presents respective data packaged per city.

The report highlights the need for an integrated approach to urban safety that underscores social crime prevention, i.e. interventions and programmes that emphasise prevention alongside conventional law enforcement and policing, with a focus on vulnerable groups and targeting risky behaviours early on.

The report also makes the case for South Africa to adopt a more targeted, evidence-based approach to reducing and preventing violence and crime. This means, for example, that interventions should incorporate a national spatial perspective with a strong link to cities and towns, and identified “hotspot” areas within them.

To support this, the report introduces a framework of 21 indicators relating to crime, violence as well as social and structural risk factors. These will be monitored in the future and will help standardise the description and measurement of urban safety in South African cities. When adapted to each city’s unique context, the indicators will provide a valuable basis of comparison, assessment and planning of evidence-based responses.

The State of Urban Safety in South Africa Report is a flagship publication of the South African Cities Urban Safety Reference Group (USRG). The USRG constitutes the first institutionalised forum in South Africa that enables practice-based learning and knowledge sharing amongst practitioners from the SACN member cities as well as other key government role-players on urban safety and violence prevention. The USRG was established in early 2014. It is convened by the South African Cities Network (SACN) with the support of the GIZ Inclusive Violence and Crime Prevention (VCP) Programme.

Urban concentration of violence and crime in South Africa

In South Africa, nine major municipalities are home to 38% of the country’s total population but experience a disproportionate proportion of crimes reported nationally. The nine municipalities are the City of Johannesburg, City of Cape Town, eThekwini, Ekurhuleni, City of Tshwane, Nelson Mandela Bay, Mangaung, Buffalo City and Msunduzi. According to the official statistics, 78% of all car-jackings, 58% of all house robberies, 51% of all common assaults and 47% of all murders occur in these nine municipalities. The exception to the rule is, unsurprisingly, stock theft.

This imbalance may be because of reporting factors (e.g. longer distances to the nearest police station may discourage reporting in rural areas), but other factors make it likely that in reality these crimes are more prevalent in certain urban environments. This means that crime in South Africa as a whole can be disproportionately reduced through focusing specifically on the larger urban areas.

Different crime patterns require targeted responses

According to the latest SAPS release of the crime statistics for 2014/2015, the national murder rate is now roughly 33 per 100 000. When the municipalities are looked at individually, however, it is clear that each has a different story to tell:

Whereas the City of Johannesburg’s murder rate nearly matches the national rate at about 33 per 100 000, the City of Cape Town’s murder rate is far higher (double), and the City of Tshwane well below it, with the other municipalities somewhere between these two extremes.

By repeating this task for other crime categories, what emerges is not simply that some municipalities have “more crime” than others, but rather their recorded crime patterns are different, with some crimes more common/rarer from one municipality to another.

This means that a much larger repertoire of data needs to be developed in order to understand the reasons for these differences, as well as which are the best possible levers to target in order to address each city’s most pressing crime concerns.

For this reason, the 21 indicators introduced by the report and to be monitored in the future will provide an important basis for evidence-based, better targeted urban safety strategies and responses.

Together towards integrated approaches: The Urban Safety Reference Group

The USRG platform has played a crucial role in developing a common language, a frame of reference and a harmonisation of safety practices at city level.

Sharing among cities has been invaluable to reflecting on the respective institutional approaches and identifying the key areas for harmonising practices, particularly in dealing with shared challenges of violent and organised crime, displaced persons, substance abuse, xenophobia, gender-based violence and youth unemployment.

The USRG recognises the need for a shift towards integrated approaches in urban safety practices and underscored the importance of research and knowledge generation for sound decision-making. In addition to conventional law enforcement, integrated approaches to urban safety need to include spatial planning, education and early childhood development, and social and economic development.

As a result of this new orientation, USRG member municipalities are increasingly viewing safety as a key consideration when planning and implementing new projects, in particular the upgrading of informal settlements.


Integrated approaches are needed to address the social, economic, spatial and political drivers of violence and crime in cities. Cities need to have a clear mandate for playing a direct role in the production of safer cities, supported by resource allocation and policy development – all of which are critical to the success of integrated violence and crime prevention approaches.

Recommendations of the State of Urban Safety in South Africa Report 2016 include:

Develop long-term urban safety policies

These must be consistent, comprehensive and cross-sectoral, and set out, clarify and strengthen the competencies, responsibilities, roles and accountability of local governments and metropolitan municipalities in urban safety.

Develop capacity within local government

Based on an audit of existing institutional and human resources available within metros and other municipalities, provincial and national government should assist local government to set up appropriate fiscal, personnel and organisational systems to fulfil their violence and crime prevention responsibilities.

Activate and resource communities to play their part

The state has the primary responsibility for ensuring the safety of citizens but cannot do it alone. A vital part of the solution is active citizenship and the social energies that exist within communities, based on people’s innate desire to live in safe environments that provide social and economic opportunities.

Design for cohesion and safety

Urban planning, design and infrastructure development must emphasise safety. As such, the importance of intergovernmental and cross-departmental interactions needs to be understood, particularly in the planning and social development spaces. Aspects that need to be considered include ensuring good mobility and accessibility to various means of transport, promoting multi-functionality of public spaces, drawing in people of diverse backgrounds to share the same services and facilities, as well as feelings of comfort and safety.

Promote adequate resources and capacity

These are dependent upon good fiscal relations and intergovernmental coordination around safety functions and programmes, and will determine the capability of cities in developing, implementing and managing urban safety strategies.

The full State of Urban Safety in South Africa Report 2016 can be downloaded here. For more information, write to

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