Violence prevention: critical to national development

Violence prevention: critical to national development – Blog

For sustainable reductions in crime and violence, we need to focus on early childhood interventions that ensure our children grow up safe and are enabled to take advantage of the opportunities that do exist.

For sustainable reductions in crime and violence, we need to focus on early childhood interventions that ensure our children grow up safe and are enabled to take advantage of the opportunities that do exist.

Sustained high levels of violence and crime pose a fundamental threat to South Africa’s development, not least because of the adverse effect violence has on the realisation of human potential.

Institute for Security Studies

This is a guest post by Chandré Gould, senior research fellow at the Institute for Security Studies (ISS) Governance, Crime and Justice Division.

To find out more about the ISS, visit

Both the NDP and the Integrated Urban Development Framework1, released last year for comment by the Department of Cooperative Governance and Traditional Affairs, recognise that safety is fundamental to development. However, the visionary IUDF, much like the National Development Plan, upon which the framework builds, runs the risk of being so vague about what needs to be done to prevent violence in the medium to long term that it may become inactionable.

Both the NDP and the IUDF recognise the importance of investing in social protection, health care and education to realise human potential which is necessary for a greater number of South Africans to be able to access jobs or create their own, and live healthier, happier lives. But, it does not necessarily follow, as we might expect or hope, that improving access to job markets and services will increase safety. Experience in Latin America shows that job creation, particularly for young people, also does not necessarily achieve the intended outcomes of social inclusion and social cohesion, nor an increase in safety, largely because the kind of jobs that are available to them do not meet their earning or status expectations2. Also, for many young people who bear the burden of intergenerational deprivation and disadvantage, education followed by entry to job market is not an obvious trajectory3.

The IUDF is currently out for public consultation. Read the draft here:
It is quite understandable that neither the NDP nor the IUDF are specific about how to reduce violence and increase safety. The interventions required don’t yield quick results and can seem overly complex. Also discussion about violence prevention is mostly either confined to criminal justice or public health – so happens in silos between people who are comfortable with particular languages and responses. This we see reflected in the framework’s emphasis on placing local safety plans in the hands of community policing forums despite recognising that there is such a low level of skill and capacity in many localities that any safety plans that may be developed are unlikely to address the root causes of violence.

To achieve violence reduction and increase safety in the long run we need to be specific about what needs to happen, how these actions contribute to long-term safety and security, and who is responsible for making them happen. Furthermore, the evidence is clear that, for sustainable reductions in crime and violence, we need to enhance our approach to include making available and accessible interventions that focus on what happens to children in the first three years of their lives; and then following up to ensure that as they grow they remain safe and are enabled to take advantage of the opportunities that do exist.

The case for primary prevention

Our challenge as a country is to reduce entrenched inequality, reduce violence and increase safety. We can do these simultaneously. But, doing so requires a radical shift of attention and investment into the very early years of children’s lives.

A significant number of children (estimated at over two hundred million) in low and middle income countries do not achieve their developmental potential because of the effects of poverty4. This is because poverty negatively affects physical growth (if coupled with inadequate nutrition), cognitive development, health and social and emotional competence. These factors combine to entrench poverty and inequality intergenerationally5. One of the reasons for this is that cognitive and socio-emotional development and the ability to regulate our emotions is critical to our ability to interact successfully with others. And this in turn is critical to educational achievement. It is also necessary to the formation of healthy intimate partnerships, and to success in the job market.

“Ensuring that infants get the right kind of care ... is the best chance we have at breaking cycles of poverty and violence.”
Nobel laureate and economist, James Heckman, has made a strong case for investing in children’s lives. He has shown that investments in interventions that support the cognitive and socio-emotional development of disadvantaged children ages 0 – 3 yields a significantly higher return in terms of human capital than investments later on in life, such as through youth employment strategies6.

In short, the evidence shows that if we seek to increase human capital, which is necessary for the realisation of the development goals of the NDP and the IUDF, our investments need to be made in infants and children, and then follow them up with skill building after school care.

Making sure that babies and infants get the right kind of care, nutrition and stimulation in the first 1000 days of their lives is the best chance we have at breaking cycles of poverty and violence, increasing the number of young people who complete school, reducing inequality and building a healthy future. This is the time of our lives when we have both the greatest potential and are most vulnerable to the effects of toxic stress, abuse and neglect.

Here’s why: Between conception and two years a babies brain will grow to 80% of its adult weight; also in this time connections in the brain are created at a rate of I million per second, faster than at any other time in our lives. The ability to regulate emotions is also learnt in the first few months of our lives, and it is this ability that enables us to cope in the world and establish meaningful relationships with others. Emotional regulation depends on a healthy, nurturing bond being established between a baby and their primary caregiver7. Thus during this period there is enormous potential for creating a strong foundation for the rest of our lives.

But, just as we can positively affect children’s lives in this time; if things go wrong in the first few years it can set a child back permanently. Babies and infants are more vulnerable to abuse and neglect than older children and that means we need to give particular attention to ensuring their safety. Abused or neglected children, who don’t have a healthy bond with a caring adult, are at risk of not coping at school; becoming the victim or perpetrator of violence and are likely to struggle later in life; so too are babies who are exposed to ‘toxic stress’ which includes exposure to alcohol and other drugs in the womb, violence in the home; or whose caregiver is depressed or mentally ill.

Children who experience neglect and abuse, and who are not cognitively stimulated in their infancy are likely to go on to repeat the cycle of deprivation and disadvantage. This is exacerbated by exposure to violence in the home, stressed parents, harsh corporal punishment at school and at home, bullying at school. Together this creates a toxic mix that massively reduces human potential and lays the basis for continuing cycles of violence.

“If we focus only on building and maintaining infrastructure, and situational crime prevention, without paying attention to the people who will use it, we risk swimming against the tide of violence in perpetuity.”
The good news is that there are a number of programmes that have been developed and tested in South Africa that address exactly this. These are programmes such as the Thula Sana home visiting programme which has been shown to help mothers form healthy, warm bonds with their infants; a book sharing programme in which caregivers are taught to share a book with infants that has been shown to increase attention, focus and vocabulary; programmes that help parents to use positive discipline and improve their experience of parenting; in-school programmes that reduce sexual offending; after school skill building programmes that reduce risky behaviour in teens, including substance abuse.

These programmes could be rolled-out. Doing so will not only prevent violence in the longer term, but it will also have a positive effect on productivity. In other words to achieve the development outcomes envisaged by the NDP and IUDF we need to focus our investments on ensuring that babies born today can grow up to be healthy, motivated adults in the future. If, on the other hand, we focus only on building and maintaining infrastructure, and situational crime prevention, without paying attention to the people who will use it, we risk swimming against the tide of violence in perpetuity.

In order to make this shift to enable development we need to ensure that:

  1. budgets at national and provincial level are allocated for primary prevention programme delivery
  2. key performance indicators motivate and enable referral by primary health care providers, and other ‘first responders’ such as social workers, to programmes
  3. local and provincial government are informed about and understand the value and importance of primary prevention
  4. safety plans are developed that include primary prevention

Integrating these factors into the IUDF would be a huge step towards achieving the goal of a safe, healthy, prosperous country.

Furthermore safety plans need to recognise the reality that, as data from the National Income Dynamics Surveys show, the majority children (57%) in South Africa do not live with their fathers, and only 40% of fathers contribute towards the cost of their upbringing8. What this means is that when we think about transport routes, location of health and educational services, ECD centres, after school care and the opening hours of service providers we need to consider how these meet the needs of single, working parents. We also need to ask whether community policing forums are the right forums for discussing primary interventions to decrease violence, as the knowledge about such programmes is unlikely to be found here.

Chandré Gould, Senior Research Fellow, Governance, Crime and Justice Division, ISS Pretoria

A slightly revised version of this article has also been published on the ISS website.



1 Department of Cooperative Governance and Traditional Affairs. (2014) Integrated Urban Development Framework: Draft for discussion.

2 Bergman, A. (2014). The paradoxes of peace, justice and youth employment: Questioning youth employment insertion as a strategy for violence prevention. Don Bosco University, El Salvador.

3 Ibid., 9.

4 Zahir Vally, L. M., Mark Tomlinson, Peter Cooper (2014). "The impact of dialogic book-sharing training on infant language and attention: a randomized controlled trial in a deprived South African community." The Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry.

5 Ibid.

6 James Heckman. (2008) The case for investing in disadvantaged young children, in Big Ideas for Children: Investing in Our Nation’s Future.

7 Astrid Berg. (2015) The critical days: the importance of the period from conception to age two. Red Cross War Memorial Children’s Hospital, Universities of Cape Town and Stellenbosch. Presentation to the Mother Infant and Child Health/Wellness Working Group, Cape Town, 27 January 2015.

8 Mazembo Mavungu Eddy, H. T.-d. B., Karabo Mphaka (2013). So we are ATM fathers: A study of absent fathers in Johannesburg, South Africa. Johannesburg, Sonke Gender Justice.

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