The latest statistics from the South African Police Service show small gains in the fight against crime but murder rates are still unacceptably high.
Crime statistics for the year ended April 2012 showed on Thursday there were 15 609 murders last year, which equates to about 43 murders a day. This is a 3.1% decrease from last year, or 331 less murders.
The murder rate is four and a half times more than the global average of 6.9 murders per 100 000.
Police Minister Nathi Mthethwa said 65% of murders started off as assaults resulting from interpersonal arguments, which were often further stimulated by alcohol and drug abuse.
The statistics, which reflect crimes reported to police between March 31 2011 and April 1 2012, were released at a briefing in Parliament on Thursday morning.
Mthethwa described the findings as a "mixed bag, with marginal downward trends in certain categories of crime".
SA's mixed bag
The country has seen a significant decrease in contact crime, which includes murder, attempted murder, sexual offences, grievous bodily harm, common assault, aggravated robbery and common robbery. Contact crime is down 35% from 2004/05 to 2011/12.
One disturbing trend was the increase in drug-related crime, which was up 15.6% over the previous year.
Mthethwa said sexual offences remained stubbornly high, and said government was concerned about the conviction rates of those who committed them. Sexual offences decreased by 3.7% and rape dropped by 1.7%.
He conceded that under-reporting was a factor in tracking sexual offences, and said the statistics were influenced by reporting behaviour.
"If victims trust police, you will get more reporting. The issue of underreporting remains a challenge," he said.
Mthethwa said he was pleased with the stabilisation of business robbery and the sustained reduction in house and public robbery.
Drunk driving increased by 2.9% over the past year – a worrying trend since road deaths kill almost as many people each year as murders do. Mthethwa added road fatalities continue to be associated with drunk driving.
He welcomed the recent National Prosecuting Authority's decision to charge people with murder instead of culpable homicide when death has resulted from car accidents, saying he hoped this would result in more responsible driving.
"We are not there yet but with the participation of all sectors of society we are turning the tide against crime. We must win the battle against crime in whatever form it manifests itself. It is our common enemy and collectively we shall defeat this scourge," he said.
Small businesses at risk
Another worrying aspect of the statistics was the substantial increase in business robbery over the years.
While hijacking and house robberies declined by 11.9% and 1.9% respectively, business robberies increased by 7.5% in the past year. But, according to Lizette Lancaster, head of the crime and justice hub at the Institute for Security Studies, the broader picture is much starker.
"Business robbery increased 380% from 2004/05 to this year – it's huge, and that is our concern," said Lancaster. It was small businesses like spaza shops that had been hit hardest by this type of crime, she added.
Disaggregation of stats
Lancaster said it would be difficult to make proper sense of crime statistics unless they were broken down into their components and released more frequently. The crime stats released this morning, she pointed out, are already six months out of date.
"We need to call for a disaggregation so that we know what we're faced with," she said.
Statistics from different crimes are grouped together into categories to make reporting easier but this often obscures details. The sexual offences category, for example, includes about 50 different crimes, with everything from pornography to rape lumped into one category.
Without a further breakdown it would be hard to tell which sexual offences were being prevented and which might be increasing. "Only then can we monitor where we are at and only then can we have intervention at local level in place," she said.
Without more detail it would also be difficult to tell which crimes were a problem in which parts of the country.
During the media briefing on Thursday, Gauteng police commissioner Mzwandile Petros expressed concerned about the displacement of crime from big cities into smaller towns.
Lancaster said this trend could be seen in the 22% increase in hijacking and 31% increase in business robbery in the Eastern Cape, which were not evident if one simply looked at national averages.
Reliability of statistics questions
Dianne Kohler Barnard, the Democratic Alliance's (DA) spokesperson on police, echoed the call for disaggregation, saying: "Certain categories of crime such as domestic violence, gang-related violence and violent public protests are absorbed into larger categories in an effort to hide the real situation on the ground."
"This makes it difficult to determine the precise number of domestic violence incidents which occur and whether we are winning the fight against domestic abuse."
Kohler Barnard slammed the statistics, saying there was a distinct lack of progress, despite the department's R62.4-billion budget.
She added the DA had questions about the validity and reliability of the statistics.
"National Police Commissioner Riah Phiyega admitted today [Thursday] that there is no independent audit of the statistics. This means that we can't determine whether the procedure followed in collating the statistics is valid. It is time for an independent body to take control of the crime statistics away from the police," she said.
She said for crime statistics to have any meaning, they must be integrated with arrest and conviction statistics.
Out of every 1 000 crimes reported to police, only 300 reached court; of those only 90 cases were won, Kohler Barnard added.