What is the situation in South Africa?

What is the situation in South Africa? – Understand


The cost of violence to the South African economy is amongst some of the highest in the world, with the country ranked 126th overall, out of 163 countries, in the 2016 Global Peace Index. The index found that the national cost of violence in South Africa is at 19% of the country’s GDP – the 16th highest rate in the world. Total violence containment spending in the country amounted to around R1.84 trillion (roughly R34 160 per person in the country). South Africa was found to stand out in five main categories of violence: the number of violent crimes, the number of violent protests, the number of murders, easy access to weapons, and an overall perception of criminality, ranking 10th worst in overall violence reduction, and 19th worst in terms of safety and security.

Crimes and violence can have devastating effects on family life, community cohesion, efficient functioning and stability of the economy and public health outcomes. This makes understanding and combatting them imperative. In order to understand South Africa’s high levels of crime and violence, it is crucial that it is analysed within the context that it occurs. Although violence is a global phenomenon, South Africa is a country dealing with unique and complex dynamics surrounding violence and crime. Today’s South African society comes from a past riddled with violence and oppression, primarily due to the legacy of the apartheid system, which has had a profound impact on the ways in which the population navigates its demographic, socio-economic and geographical arenas 


Violence and crime in South Africa

The prevalence of violence and crime has long been one of South Africa’s major challenges, and the rates indicate that the government’s goal of ensuring that all South Africans should be and feel safe is a long way from realisation. Despite the measures put in place to combat violent crime, South African Police Service (SAPS) crime statistics, as well as the Victims of Crime Survey (VOCS) results, indicate that levels of violence have maintained their high levels, with only marginal fluctuations on an annual basis.

National crime statistics show that there were 18 673 murder cases reported between April 2015 and March 2016, along 18 127 attempted murders. Additionally, more than 14 thousand carjackings, 51 thousand sexual offences, 132 thousand robberies with aggravated circumstances, and in excess of a quarter of a million drug-related crimes were committed and reported.]

South African Crime Stats 2015/16

While this may seem like a large number of crimes, these statistics only tell half of the story. This is because crime reporting rates vary considerably depending on the type of crime - 95% of murder cases were reported to the police, as opposed to 17% of crop theft incidents. Research has found that much of the population who experience crime do not report incidents to the police because they believed the police could not or would not do anything about it. Victims leaving incidents unreported is a notable concern, not only because it means that these individuals are not accessing the support services they are entitled to, whether that be police investigation, legal services, protection or counselling, but it also means that we have no way of knowing what the true levels of violence are in South Africa. This also suggests that people do not trust the criminal justice system to do its job effectively.

Reporting statistics vs. real statistics

One study has highlighted the gap between police statistics and actual rates violence when it comes to a very sensitive form of violence, intimate partner violence. Between April 2008 and March 2009, 12 093 women in Gauteng, or 0,3% of the adult female population, reported an assault by an intimate partner to the police. In contrast, during the same time period 18,1% of women in the province reported an experience of violence at the hands of intimate male partners to researchers. This study showed just how many people are experiencing violence, but not receiving the support of state services, and potentially continuing to live in circumstances that are dangerous to them.

In the 2016 Community Survey conducted by Statistics South Africa, households were asked what they perceived as their main challenge or difficulty in their municipality to be and violence and crime was cited as one of the main challenges faced. Overall, 7,5% of households in the country experienced crime in the 12 months prior to the Survey, much of which occurred within metropolitan areas, among the high density of the city and its surrounds. Percentages within each province show that over 9% of households in Western Cape (9,7%) and Gauteng (9,1%) experienced crime within the 12 months prior to the survey, which are higher than the national average of 7,5%. Nationally, the most frequently experienced crime type was housebreaking/burglary (3,6%).

Domestic violence, such as intimate partner violence and child abuse, commonly occur within households across the country. These incidents are often fuelled by problems associated with alcohol and drug abuse (another issue much of the population struggles with), as is much of the other violent and criminal behaviour displayed throughout South Africa. While incidents of murder make up only 1% of what is considered to be serious crime, and there has been a decline in the experiences of home robberies over the past few years, the number of occurrences is still very high. In fact, robbery and murder are the two most reliable indicators of public safety and are the categories representing the types of crime that cause the most public fear.

The current levels of crime contribute significantly towards a climate of fear among people living in South Africa, many of who do not feel safe enough to walk alone in parks or allow their children to play freely in their neighbourhoods. Similarly, as revealed by the Community Survey, two-thirds of South African households do not feel safe while walking in the dark.

Safety of public spaces and within communities impacts profoundly on the mobility and quality of life of citizens and their opportunities to participate in public life and developmental processes. With each year that violence remains prevalent, the number of South Africans who have experienced and witnessed violence increases, and so does the extent of national trauma. This has serious consequences the health system, our ability to build a cohesive national identity and our ability to raise a new generation of safe and healthy children.

While these statistics show that the levels of violence and crime in South Africa are higher than those experienced in most other countries, it is important to emphasise that we cannot know the true levels of violence in this country, because of problems like under-reporting. The sources of information available to us suggest that there is much work that needs to be done to decrease crime and violence and improve peoples’ feeling of safety, and this starts with identifying what contextual factors specific to South Africa may make its citizens more likely to behaviour in a criminal or violent manner.


Why does violence occur in South Africa? 

More than two decades have passed since the realisation of democracy in South Africa, however, the country continues to face numerous challenges related to crime and violence. Today, this legacy continues to impact on South Africa and is compounded by new challenges. While the root causes of violent and criminal behaviour are intricate and multifaceted (see How Can We Prevent Violence page), there are many contextual factors in South Africa that put people at greater risk of engaging in violent behaviour.

One major risk factor is South African’s economic context, as South Africa has one of the highest official unemployment rates in the world, with just over 26% of the country’s population are not employed.  Related to this, and particularly relevant to youth violence is the alarming lack of employment opportunities for young people. Almost a third (30.6%) of youth between the ages of 15 and 24 live in a precarious situation referred to as NEET, which stands for “not in education, employment and training”. Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development’s youth unemployment rate indicator shows that South Africa has the worst youth unemployment rate among 36 countries across the globe.

More than half (54%) of South African’s live below the poverty line – that’s 27 million people living on R779 per person per month or less. South Africa’s economy also has one of the highest inequality rates in the world, perpetuating social inequality and exclusion. 

The Gini coefficient

The Gini coefficient is the measure of income inequality, ranging from zero to one. Zero is a perfectly equal society and a value of one represents a perfectly unequal society, with anything above 0,5 indicating strong inequality.

With a Gini coefficient ranging from between 0.66 and 0.70 – with the top 10% of the population accounting 58% of the country’s income, and the bottom half less than 8% - South Africa has to be one of the most consistently unequal countries in the world.

Many South Africans cannot meet their basic needs because of insufficient income and still highly-adequate delivery of basic services. With the country’s history of extreme structural and direct violence during apartheid, this alarming inequality is perceived as a continuation of injustice and fuels the grievances of the vast majority of South African society. 

Evidence suggests that violence occurs at higher rates in societies with high levels of economic inequality, and in South Africa, violence levels remain high, alongside increasing inequality, high unemployment and income poverty.

South Africa also has one of the highest alcohol consumption levels per drinker in the world. Many incidents of fatal and non-fatal violence occur after alcohol and drug abuse. Additionally, South Africa has high proportions of children exposed to risks for neurological damage in early life: the prevalence of foetal alcohol spectrum disorders is the highest in the world.

Many South African children live with alternative caregivers - only about half of South African children live with both biological parents and even fewer do so consistently through childhood and adolescence. Domestic violence and child maltreatment are prevalent in South Africa, and many South African schools are underperforming, as well as still resorting to corporal punishment as discipline, despite its being prohibited. All of this is incongruous with promoting non-violence and pro-social behaviours, and are just some of the contextual factors which may ultimately result in aggression and increase the possibility of delinquent behaviour amongst the population.

Gender norms are another factor to consider - masculine gender identities that promote the use of violence are still prominent, and are reinforced by a lack of employment opportunities and historical factors. In fact, using violence generally, such as in conflict situations and to build status is often seen as acceptable by much of society today.


Does South Africa have a culture of violence? 

Many experts on violence in South Africa emphasise that it is important to situate South Africa’s current violence levels in the context of its violent past, the legacy of apartheid and colonialism. Some of these aspects related to violence and crime in this situation are:

Centuries of colonial racial oppression;

  • Violent state repression and institutionalised racism under the apartheid system;
  • Migrant labour and influx control systems, which adversely affect family structures and social cohesion; and
  • The impunity of criminals in the townships under apartheid.

Many researchers working in this field agree that the core of the problem of violence and crime in South Africa has a lot to do with a culture of violence, which needs to be seen and understood in the context of an extremely violent past.

A culture of violence - what does that mean?

In this context, a culture of violence refers to a greater tendency than average within a specific society to resort to the use of violence in day to day life. It does not mean the cultures in South Africa have a violent character, but that violence is viewed as more acceptable by people generally, possibly because South Africans witness, perpetrate and are the victims of violence more often that people in other countries. A culture of violence means most South African’s grow up and live in an environment in which violence has become somewhat of a ‘norm’.

It has been argued that when violence in normalised in a society, certain types of violence become more common. These include: 

  • Violence within families, between parents, and parents being violent towards their children;
  • Glorification of violence;
  • Violence as a means of dealing with feelings of inferiority or to create a feeling of belonging, for instance to a youth gang; 
  • Violence perpetrated by men against girls and women as part of masculine identity; and 
  • Normalisation of political violence.

Contact or social fabric crimes are by nature crimes that mostly occur as a result of values held by communities, families and individuals in relation to the use of physical violence to settle disputes and of domestic violence as a means of asserting authority. South Africa is a country where much of the male population historically bonded in a violent and militarised context. It is also often seen as culturally acceptable to use violence to resolve conflicts and enforce discipline. Additionally, tough, aggressive and competitive masculinity is promoted and ‘weakness’ is ridiculed. Due to circumstances such as these, many South Africans live out a ‘culture of violence’, or at least accept violence as inevitable under certain circumstances.

This so-called culture of violence, where violence is seen as a normal and inevitable part of daily life, can and needs to be changed.


Working together for a safer South Africa 

The prevalence of crime and violence in South Africa can hardly be pinned on a lack of adequate resources available to the South African Police Services (SAPS), or other departments playing a direct role in crime prevention, such as Justice and Corrections. The cost of government’s attempts to control the crime situation adds up to a substantial sum, with an allocated budgets of over R93 billion for 2017/18 for the SAPS, and R44 billion for 2017/18 for the courts and prisons. Evidently allocating ever-increasing amounts of money into these systems as they stand is not achieving what it is aiming for. The past 20 years of doing just this have not shown any substantial and long-term decrease in the levels of crime and violence and nor an increase in citizens’ feelings of safety.

While promoting safety and security in this way may be important, it is also important to invest substantially in departments critical for crime prevention work, the care and wellbeing of children, and the support of families. Inadequate funding for the provision of these services results in an inability to effectively implement required services such as early interventions and family support programmes. This is problematic because prevention and early intervention services could, over time, reduce the need for (more expensive and less effective) response interventions and services from the criminal justice sectors.

Similarly, violence prevention in South Africa requires collaboration among the many practitioners who work in this field, from the government to civil society. While many place the responsibility of safety and security for the country on the shoulders of the police, this needs to be distributed more among all departments and role-players as everyone needs to contribute in creating a safe country free of crime and violence.

Just as there is no single cause of violence and crime, there is no single solution. A multi-faceted, holistic approach needs to be adopted, with a focus on prevention. Against the backdrop of its challenging environment, South Africa is home to a highly qualified community of practitioners in the field of violence and crime prevention. Stakeholders from all levels of government, civil society and community-based organisations use a wealth of expertise to research and implement violence prevention and safety measures in schools and communities through improvements in the built environment and through comprehensive policy making. All efforts and actors need to be coordinated in order to achieve an integrated approach to violence prevention that tackles multiple risk factors simultaneously while promoting multiple protective factors.

Unused opportunity and potential

Young people are often seen as “a problem” for safety and the main group of perpetrators of violence and crime. However new policies and approaches make a shift toward looking at young people rather as "an unused opportunity and potential" for the country´s future. This shift away from marginalisation and stigmatisation of youth towards supporting young people as socially responsible and productive citizens is essential for exhausting their full potential in systemic violence prevention.

Safety is an essential human right, and the state is constitutionally obliged to respect, protect, promote and fulfil the rights of the population. Consequently, the National Development Plan (NDP) puts forth a vision of ensuring the absolute safety of all people in South Africa, which makes the reduction of contact crimes one of the key priorities of the criminal justice system.


In the spotlight: Community safety in South Africa

"In 2030, people living in South Africa feel safe and have no fear of crime. They are safe at home, at school, at work and they enjoy active community life free of fear. Women can walk freely in the streets and children can play safely outside. Safety and security are directly related to socioeconomic development and equity, affecting the development objectives of economic growth and transformation, employment creation, improved education and health outcomes, and strengthened social cohesion."

National Development Plan 2012

The National Development Plan – a government document presenting a bold vision of South Africa in 2030 – includes building safer communities as a core area. The plan states that safety is a core human right. Even more than that, as the above quote highlights, safety is understood to be more than the absence of violence and crime. The concept of safety in South Africa encompasses physical security and important social dimensions such as employment, education and health.

Against this backdrop, the concept of community safety has become established in South Africa. Focusing on the community as a whole, it promotes a multi-stakeholder approach towards violence and crime prevention that is driven by local needs. It considers the community with its different stakeholders – from residents to local government and police, to civil society organisations and local businesses – as important actors in violence and crime prevention. While it is the obligation of the state to guarantee its citizens' right to safety, all these actors share the responsibility to protect and contribute to safety at a local level.

In this context, local government assumes a particularly important role: As the sphere of government closest to the citizens, it is in an ideal position to lead the coordination and integration of local efforts towards creating safer communities. 

In line with this understanding, Community Safety Forums (CSFs) are being established in municipalities across the country. These CSFs provide a municipality-wide platform for coordinating, integrating and monitoring the implementation of multi-sectoral crime-prevention and community-safety initiatives. Their goal is to "promote the development of a community where citizens live in a safe environment and have access to high-quality services at local level, through integrated and coordinated multi-agency collaboration among organs of state and various communities."


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