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Death between friends

The police should move their attention from wealthier “high crime areas” to poorer areas, where priority should be given to fighting violence among acquaintances, according to a report commissioned by the department of justice and presented at a government briefing on Monday.

The paper was produced by the Centre for the Study of Violence and Reconciliation (CSVR) as part of a long-term government project to tackle violent crime. Researchers David Bruce, Amanda Diessel and Sasha Gear say policymakers have now accepted that South Africa’s high murder rate is fuelled largely by “acquaintance violence”, which occurs mostly in poor communities. Almost half the country’s murders are committed by acquaintances of the victim, they point out.

So far, policymakers and the police have shied away from tackling such crimes as they believe them to involve private issues.

Policing efforts should be refocused to tackle this type of crime, the report argues, and this should ultimately bring down crime rates nationally. The researchers, however, are quick to add that “this is not to argue that crimes such as robbery should not also be regarded as an important concern”.

“The problem of ‘acquaintance violence’ in poorer communities is a major factor contributing to the broader problem of violence in South African society and needs to be addressed more directly, both in the interests of protecting people in poorer communities against violence, as well as in order to tackle the broader problem of violence,” they say.

This would also reduce other crimes, such as violence against women, a clear example of acquaintance violence and one that often leads to murder.

The CSVR researchers say there is a belief that little can be done about acquaintance violence and that it affects only poor communities on the fringes of society. The fact that it is mainly black men who are the perpetrators and victims makes the problem harder to confront.

“While middle-class concerns motivate for government to give priority to predatory violent crimes such as robbery, violence can probably be addressed more productively if greater attention is paid to the problem of acquaintance violence,” say the researchers.

The researchers’ concept paper has been backed by a study titled Streets of Pain, Streets of Sorrow, which analyses dockets from the six police stations around the country that report the highest number of murders.

The Community Agency for Social Enquiry carried out the fieldwork at Nyanga, Johannesburg Central, Thokoza, Kraaifontein, KwaMashu and Montclaire police stations.

The study strongly suggests that murders are often committed as a result of drunken arguments between people who know each other, especially in metropolitan areas. It also suggests that other types of violent crime such as robbery, assault and sexual assault also contribute to South Africa’s high murder rate, as murder is often the end result of these crimes.

The analysis found that 47% of murders occurred among people who knew each other. Of these acquaintance murders, 26% began with an argument.

The overwhelming majority — 63% — of murders in the six hotspots were committed over the weekend, with 29% occurring on Saturdays.

Two-thirds of all murders are committed at night, between 6pm and 3am, with a peak between 6pm and 9pm.

Half the reported murders occur in open public spaces, with “street” frequently logged on the docket as the scene of the crime. This is closely followed by the victim’s residence. Shebeens, contrary to conventional wisdom, were found to be the least likely place for committing murder, and are logged as the crime scenes in only 5% of cases.

The preferred murder weapon (58%) was a gun, which, in most instances, belonged to the offender. This was followed closely by a knife or other sharp instrument. In 17% of these cases the victim’s own weapon was used.

The researchers ran tests on victims of violent death and found the majority (55%) had consumed high levels of alcohol.

The majority of victims (70%) were males between the ages of 20 and 39. Only 11% of murder victims were women, with 41% of the killings triggered by arguments.

The view that poverty contributes to violent crime was supported by the finding that about half the murder victims were unemployed, while about 17% were blue-collar workers.

As a way to curb some of the murders the study recommends that the police should focus their search and seizure efforts on weapons other than guns, such as knives or sharp instruments. Laws banning alcohol advertising and restricting access to alcohol are also suggested.

The police should pay more attention to crimes committed in public spaces and develop a more targeted approach to crimes committed on the street such as “street robberies”, which, according to the study, the police neglect.

The study notes that a “culture of intimidation” is fuelled by the fact that crime hotspots are situated near hostels, which operate outside the reach of the law. The researchers suggest that “policy priorities should be to extend the reach of the law into these environments”.

The colour of murder

The vast majority, 89%, of murder victims in six hotspots taken together were black. In Kraaifontein the breakdown was roughly even between black and coloured, in line with the general population. Only four victims were white, while 11 were Asian.’

Only 3% of murder victims were classified as “foreign”, representing 100 dead. Of these, 32% were Zimbabwean, 21% Mozambican, and 24% were classified as “other African”.

Murder capitals of the world
Between 2001 and 2005 six police stations in South Africa contributed a staggering total of 1 128 confirmed murder cases to the national total.

These are the six murder hotspots identified and studied by the Centre for the Study of Violence and Reconciliation:

  • Thokoza is a township east of Johannesburg. The area includes formal housing, albeit often with sublet backrooms, as well as informal settlements. It includes three single-sex hostels, which became notorious during the build-up to the 1994 elections for housing migrant IFP workers who fought ongoing battles with the surrounding residents.
  • Montclaire is a semi-industrial area within the greater Durban municipality. The area is a major transportation hub for thousands of travellers. Montclaire is multiracial and includes large numbers of informal trading stalls.
  • Bordering it are two hostels reported to accommodate close to 30 000 people.

  • Nyanga is a township to the east of Cape Town. It has some formal housing but is predominately an informal settlement. Residents are mainly African. Nyanga is a key transit point for buses and taxis to other townships within the Cape Town municipality. Last year Nyanga was labelled the “murder capital of South Africa” after registering the highest murder rate in the land.
  • KwaMashu, outside Durban, has sprawling hostels with about 18 500 residents. The population is overwhelmingly African. The area is mainly residential, with some stand-alone houses amid pockets of informal settlements.
  • Johannesburg Central is an economic powerhouse, a major transport hub, and a popular destination for migrants. It is fairly multiracial and contains a relatively high proportion of foreign nationals.
  • Kraaifontein is a multi-racial area inhabited mostly by Africans and coloureds, with a sprinkling of whites. It is situated just outside Cape Town and is largely a residential area. The majority of the population is under the age of 12 — the same demographic profile as that of Thokoza, KwaMashu and Nyanga.

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