Urban Safety in South Africa

Urban Safety in South Africa – Understand


More than half of the world’s population live in urban areas, and, by 2030, two-thirds of the population will be urban dwellers. Although cities represent the promise of opportunities for people from all walks of life, at the same time, they are where crime and violence are concentrated. This stems from factors such as extreme inequality, unemployment, inadequate services and health provisions, social exclusion and overcrowding. Urban safety is a key component for realising livable, productive, inclusive and sustainable cities, and therefore, must be prioritized.

Addressing the social, economic, spatial and political drivers of violence and crime requires integrated approaches that go beyond conventional security and policing. Resource allocation is essential to the success of such approaches, and so a greater focus is needed on how the fiscal set-up can and should enable safety. Targeted interventions should be supported by consistent, long-term urban safety policies that are comprehensive, cross-sectoral and set out the competencies, responsibilities and accountability of local governments, as well as other spheres of government and other role-players such as civil society. 

Background and concepts

Crime and violence manifest in various forms and are primarily driven by socioeconomic factors. Crime and violence affect the psycho-social wellbeing and physical safety of citizens and have a negative impact on the productivity and sustainability of urban environments. Crime and violence also erode the democratic rights and constitutional integrity of cities, particularly in regard to freedom of movement and access to public spaces. Further, the Integrated Urban Development Framework (IUDF) frames the importance of urban safety – Goal 11, in particular – namely as cities being engines of development, and therefore needing need to be inclusive, safe with emphasis on public space & participatory governance (inclusive particularly of vulnerable groups)

Aerial view of Alexandra, Johannesburg

Institutional, fiscal, social and interventions are needed to ensure that South African cities meet their developmental potential. These need to be part of an integrated preventive approach, which rests on a clear and common understanding of roles and responsibilities, and the requisite intergovernmental and cross-departmental relations. In practice, the integrated approach 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.

Social crime prevention, as a long-term approach, deals with the root causes of crime and violence that are often embedded in social attitudes. For example, a global safer cities initiative in 2012 found that 92% of women in New Delhi experienced some form of sexual violence in public spaces during their lifetime (UN Women, 2013). It also found that, in Kigali, women are reluctant to participate in activities outside the home for fear of sexual harassment and other forms of sexual violence. Thus interventions need to target the root of the problem and encompass early childhood education, gender equality sensitization among youth and adolescents, as well as raising awareness around freedom of movement and the right of all to public space.

The concept of urban safety goes beyond the safety of persons, the integrity of investments and the sustainability of urban development – it invokes freedom of movement and access to public spaces, and unfettered participation in school, public life, and income-generating activities. 

Why Urban Safety Matters

Urban safety is recognised globally as an essential ingredient of urban development. According to UN-Habitat, 60% of all urban residents in developing countries have been victims of crime at least once over the past five years – 70% of these residents live in Latin America and Africa. Urbanisation is typically accompanied by increased crime and violence, the proliferation of weapons, substance abuse and mass youth unemployment. These crime levels and feelings of insecurity hamper the social and economic development of cities. Thus the prevention of violence and crime is recognised internationally as a key feature of sound urban safety strategies.

There is a growing understanding both globally and in South Africa, that cities are central in advancing urban safety. Because cities experience higher rates of crime than semi-urban and rural areas, safety challenges impose severe limitations to their growth and development, as well as quality of life of residents. In South Africa, uneven spatial distribution of safety affects the overall inclusivity, efficiency and functioning of cities. Further, as a result of poor planning, an exclusionary spatial form and socioeconomic factors, low-income areas, such as townships and informal settlements, suffer from especially low levels of safety.

Crime Hotspots Survey

The USRG conducted the Crime Hotspots Survey in three cities. The findings are to be published in the State of Urban Safety in South Africa 2017 Report.

Research by the Urban Safety Reference Group (USRG) in 2014/15 revealed the impact of socioeconomic drivers on levels of safety and crime, as well as the impact of perceptions of crime on the growth, development and the liveability of cities. The research also found a relationship between the fear of crime and movement. The USRG’s 2016 research into citizen perceptions in crime hotspots within 3 cities reinforced this correlation. Read together, the studies speak to a diminished quality of life as a result of high crime and violence levels in cities. They suggest the need for urban planning, design and infrastructure development that emphasises safety. In particular, as cities move towards eco and non-motorised mobility, they will need to consider how their violence and crime prevention strategies can be aligned with safety issues associated with these forms of mobility.

Safety in South African cities

Over the last 10 years, South Africa’s crime and safety trends have been mixed. Murder rates have declined considerably – by about 20% over the decade (2005/06–2014/15). This is a good sign, as the recorded murder figures are believed to be a good reflection of reality, and murder is considered a broad but reasonable proxy for crime, violence and safety in general.

However, in recent years, the downward trend has begun to reverse, increasing by 9% between 2011/12 and 2014/15. This pattern of a long decline that then slowed or reversed slightly in the last two or three years, is found for a number of other types of crime:

  • Public/street robbery: decreased by a total of 27% over the decade, but up by 24% since 2011/2012.
  • Common robbery – down by about 35% over the decade, but by only 1% since 2011/2012.
  • Carjacking – down by about 12% over the decade, but up by 29% since 2011/2012.
  • Burglary at residential premises – down by about 15% over the decade, but by only 1.3% since 2011/2012.
  • Theft of motor vehicles and motorcycles – down by about 43% over the decade, and down by 11% since 2011/2012.

Nine major municipalities are home to 38% of South Africa’s 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 carjackings, 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. 

Factors influencing crime and violence in South African cities

Research has found that many factors can have a bearing on urban crime and safety. One way to conceptualise these factors is as an “onion” of three interlinked tiers that have strong conceptual and practical interconnections.

Factors influencing crime and safety

Inner tier: conditions of crime and violence

The inner tier, “conditions of crime and violence” includes both crime and violence statistics and people’s perceptions of their safety. The second tier refers to social/structural factors that might increase conditions of crime and violence. The third tier covers existing and potential policing, crime and violence prevention programmes, which cannot be measured quantitatively; instead a qualitative assessment is done over time to evaluate the effects of the programmes.

Based on an extensive literature review, 21 proposed indicators were identified, grouped into the two inner tiers, in order to standardize the description and measurement of urban safety in South African cities. These indicators, when adapted to take into account each city’s unique context, can provide the basis of comparison, assessment and planning. For some of the indicators, the data exists and is available at municipal level, but for others additional research is required to make them useful and comparable.

The data should be compiled at a city level as well as for each police precinct within each city. In this way, the differences within each city – the “hotspots” that contribute disproportionately to crime figures – can be highlighted. Furthermore, some of the indicators require measurement along other dimensions such as gender, age or nationality. This dataset will need to be developed progressively over time.

Second tier: social/structural risk factors

Crime and violence factors exist within a range of social structures and interact with them. Deciding which of these structures to focus on as indicators and possible drivers of urban insecurity depends on the theoretical approach adopted. However, a strong basis can be found in the three overlapping categories of urbanisation, marginalisation and the state of the social and physical environment. As with the objective indicators, the data from these indicators should be broken down into smaller areas of the city, where possible, in order to identify correlations and to draw attention to the areas where crime rates are high.

Indicators for measuring urban safety

Policy framework for urban safety in South Africa

In South Africa, the issue of safety and security figures strongly in strategic policies and plans. Chapter 12 of the National Development Plan (NDP) is entitled “Building Safer Communities” and proposes an integrated approach, the demilitarisation of police and special provisions for vulnerable groups including youth, women and children. The government has developed 14 Outcomes that reflect the desired developmental impacts to be achieved in order to meet various national objectives. The aim of Outcome 3 is that “all people in South Africa are and feel safe” (The Presidency, 2014). This safety and security outcome is driven by the Justice, Crime Prevention and Security Cluster with various departments, safety and security MECs and community policing forums (CPFs) identified as delivery partners.

However, a barrier to making cities safer in South Africa is the lack of a clear and coherent framework that pulls together all the different policy intentions and directs, aligns and integrates urban safety interventions, planning instruments and investments by all government spheres and sectors. Many of the urban safety policy building blocks are in place at national, provincial and municipal levels (as seen in Table 1), but they are fragmented and uncoordinated. As a result, there is no common understanding of what municipalities should do in order to enable and implement integrated responses to making communities safer.

Municipal responsibilities relating to traditional “public safety” functions, such as traffic safety, fire and emergency services, and disaster risk management, are relatively well-defined and accommodated in municipal plans, budgets and institutional structures. However, the mandate of municipalities to promote community safety (i.e. respond to and prevent crime and violence) is not sufficiently elaborated, and so community safety fails to attract the required political buy-in and prioritisation. Consequently, municipalities struggle to motivate for and secure adequate (and sustained, long-term) funding, capacity development and other kinds of support to effectively contribute to community safety.

From a national perspective, a more spatially differentiated policy response is needed that takes into account the concentration of violence and crime in the country’s cities and towns, and directs and prioritises the allocation of financial resources and technical capacity development support accordingly. Two quarterly briefs of the USRG argue for this approach. The brief on efficient budgeting for safety calls for targeted approaches as opposed to the mere allocation of more funds and more police. The brief on crime statistics emphasizes the need for improved city-level crime data and argues that National crime statistics obscure the immensely skewed distribution of crime. Cities need to know the distribution of crime by ward, neighbourhood, and even household. Furthermore they need to be able to quantify their crime rate benchmarks and to track their relative and absolute progress over time.

Thus a focused urban approach should reflect the multidimensional nature of urban violence and urban safety, and integrate both law enforcement and targeted social crime prevention measures. Within this approach, the roles and responsibilities of different spheres of government and different departments (including within the criminal-justice cluster), as well as other non-state actors, need to be more clearly defined.

Recent policy developments

National Development Plan

The Vision 2030 of the NDP states that: “In 2030, people living in South Africa feel safe at home, at school and at work, and they enjoy a community life free of fear. Women walk freely in the streets and children play safely outside”.

The NDP proposes that local government should play a more prominent role in responding to community safety concerns and violence prevention. Among the recommendations are some concrete suggestions of what local government should do:

  • Local government should use its Constitutional mandate to promote community safety creatively and innovatively.
  • Municipalities and communities should be assisted to develop skills for safety design.
  • CPFs as mechanisms for community participation in safety should be strengthened.
  • Municipalities should undertake safety audits with communities to establish safety needs and strategies.
  • Local government should report on environmental designs aimed at addressing the safety of women, children and other vulnerable groups.
  • Local governments should have safety plans and corresponding budgets.

Soon after the NDP was published, two other key policy processes were initiated: the revision of the 1998 White Paper on Safety and Security and the development of a national urban policy for South Africa, the IUDF.

2016 White Paper on Safety and Security

The 2016 White Paper on Safety and Security builds on the 1998 original and advocates a developmental approach to creating safer communities through addressing risk factors on different levels. It also advocates more effective and integrated planning and implementation by government, informed by a sound knowledge base and active community participation.

Importantly, the new White Paper attempts to deal with gaps within the intergovernmental system by proposing the roles and responsibilities of different government spheres in relation to community safety. Local government is recognised as “a key role player in the delivery of safety and security to communities”. The location of municipalities, (at the most direct interface of government with communities), and the mandate of municipalities, represents the most inclusive range of interventions required to create an enabling environment for delivery of services which impact on the safety and wellbeing of communities.

Integrated Urban Development Framework

The Integrated Urban Development Framework (IUDF, COGTA, 2016) is a policy response to South Africa’s current and projected urbanisation trends. Its intention is to provide a national framework for how best to manage urbanisation to reap the potential benefits for cities and towns that are more resilient and inclusive, and for the national economy.

The IUDF presents urban safety as a cross-cutting issue for urban development and governance. It highlights the urban concentration of violence and crime in South Africa, as well as the consequent need for an urban approach, as part of the national response to making the country safer. The IUDF further emphasises safety in public spaces as an essential ingredient for creating liveable and prosperous cities.

While the safety of all communities (both urban and rural) matters equally, an urgent, dedicated focus on urban safety is required. A lack of safety in urban areas directly affects the socioeconomic development prospects not only of cities and their inhabitants, but also of the entire country and population.

While noting the existing legislative and institutional frameworks in place to promote community safety, the IUDF draws attention to a range of challenges:

  • The underlying root causes of violence and crime are not sufficiently addressed, i.e. inequality, unemployment, poverty, lack of social cohesion, availability of opportunities and motives for crime and victimisation.
  • Most implementation mechanisms neither sufficiently reflect the multidimensional nature of urban violence and urban safety nor focus on prevention.
  • Local safety is not sufficiently mainstreamed into the entire fabric of municipal programmes.
  • Communities are not sufficiently activated and resourced to play a meaningful role in community safety.
  • Poor planning and management make public spaces crime hotspots.

There are insufficient mechanisms for generating and transferring knowledge about community safety among practitioners and community members. As a response, various considerations and recommendations related to urban safety are found across the IUDF’s nine “policy levers”. These include the following:

  • Public transport nodes should be safe, inclusive, pedestrianized public spaces.
  • Densification strategies should require communal and open spaces with clear urban management 
plans that consider the safety and security of users.
  • The regeneration of inner cities should prioritise safety.
  • The principles of crime prevention through environmental design (CPTED) should be actively encouraged and supported, along with municipal norms and standards in urban design, planning and management that give priority to safety considerations in enhancing people’s experience of the built environment.
  • The lack of safety and high rates of crime are also a direct deterrent to household and private sector investment, and negatively affect informal, small and township businesses and neighbourhoods in particular.
  • Urban safety must be specifically addressed in order to create conducive local conditions and mobility for citizens’ engagement in economic activity.

The domestic urban development agenda resonates and aligns with a wider global agenda prioritizing safety in cities as a key component of their development success.  The New Urban Agenda (NUA) coming out of Habitat III and the UN-driven 2030 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) are increasingly a focal point in the policy and planning space. Among the 17 SDG "Global Goals" Goal 11 prioritises ‘making cities and human settlements inclusive, safe, resilient and sustainable’.

This goal was further reinforced when nation states, UN bodies and civil society from across the globe convened at the Habitat III cities conference in Quito, Ecuador in 2016 to pass the New Urban Agenda, a 20 year roadmap for creating sustainable, equitable cities for all. Locally, this urban policy momentum is mirrored in Chapter 8 of the aforementioned South African National Development Plan (NDP, 2011) and the more recent Integrated Urban Development Framework (IUDF), approved by Cabinet in 2016.

The Urban Safety Reference Group

Although local practitioners and many government officials in South Africa face similar challenges in addressing urban safety, there have been few opportunities for a structured exchange on urban safety issues among cities, and with relevant national government stakeholders. The Urban Safety Reference Group (USRG) was established in early 2014 as a way to rectify this gap.

It constitutes the first institutionalised forum in South Africa that enables practice-based learning on the theme of urban safety and violence prevention to inform urban policy, planning and management. It has proven to be a valuable and important platform for peer-to-peer learning and knowledge sharing amongst practitioners from the South African Cities Network (SACN) member cities as well as other key government role-players on urban safety and violence prevention.

The USRG is premised on the unique position of local government to play a leading role in driving developmental approaches to preventing violence and crime that complement and extend beyond conventional security approaches such as policing, law enforcement or the reliance on private security firms.

The USRG also provides a basis for cities to collectively raise the profile of the topic of urban safety nationally, and advocates for necessary policy, legislative, institutional or fiscal reforms to empower cities and local government more generally to make an even more pro-active contribution to violence and crime prevention.

The USRG is convened by the SACN with the support of the Inclusive Violence and Crime Prevention (VCP) Programme. The VCP Programme is a joint South African-German intervention coordinated by the South African Department of Cooperative Governance and implemented by the Deutsche Gesellschaft für Internationale Zusammenarbeit (GIZ) on behalf of the German Federal Ministry for Economic Cooperation and Development.

The USRG comprises safety managers and practitioners from the SACN member cities. Other relevant institutions and departments represented include the South African Local Government Association (SALGA), National Treasury, the Department of Cooperative Governance (DCoG), the Department of Social Development (DSD) and the Civilian Secretariat for Police. Thus the USRG is more than a platform for urban safety managers and practitioners to share experiences and establish a common language around integrated strategies to reduce violence and crime; it is also a space for city practitioners to interact with their national counterparts.

In terms of its core objectives the USRG seeks to influence greater policy, legislative, institutional and fiscal investment in violence and crime prevention through:

  • Facilitating peer-to-peer learning and knowledge sharing among urban safety practitioners
  • Creating space for regular interaction and networking among city practitioners and national departments with safety-related functions
  • Identifying topical matters requiring lobbying and interaction
  • Providing a platform for structured engagement between South African municipalities and international urban safety networks, such as the United Cities and Local Governments Africa (UCLGA), Global Network on Safer Cities, and the African Forum for Urban Safety (AFUS).

USRG Practices and approaches

Although policing and the criminal-justice system are core components of dealing with violence and crime, as the NDP recommends, a far stronger focus on prevention is needed that addresses the many socioeconomic roots of the problem. Therefore, 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 and integrated transport developments.

USRG Member City Approaches and Strategies

Some cities are developing their city safety strategies and implementation plans in line with their IDP, while others are still conceptualising their plans. USRG’s interaction with each city, in particular its discussions with each city of where their safety-related functions sit, has assisted member cities in thinking more deeply about the components necessary to an implementation-ready safety strategy, how these align with their IDP and the overall objective to harmonise the urban safety practices of cities.

In 2015, the City of Joburg shared its draft City Safety Strategy (JCSS) with the USRG. This comprehensive document is linked to the objectives of the City’s The JCSS recognises the changing realities in Johannesburg and the need for a cogent response to the pressures of urbanisation and development, the changing population dynamics, persistent inequality and resource scarcity, as well as new risks and new types of crime. Thus, the City of Joburg has adopted a tailored, multi-disciplinary and multi-agency approach.

Ethekwini Municipality is in the process of an institutional review of its strategy and programme, 20 years following inception.

Institutional Arrangements in USRG Member Cities

There are key differences in language among cities with regard to urban safety and related functions. For example, some member cities refer to “community safety”, while others talk of “city safety” or “safer cities”. This has highlighted the areas needing greater convergence in terms of harmonising practices. Beyond budget allocations to safety functions, part of USRG sharing and exchange has included discussion and analysis of how monies are allocated to safety and used across member cities.