A society still driven by fear

The police’s claim that the number of murders had declined last year by 8,6% to fewer than 17 000 was “plausible” but the intractable problem of violent crime still had to be properly addressed, said David Bruce, senior researcher in the criminal justice programme at the Centre for the Study of Violence and Reconciliation.

“I’m inclined to regard the murder trends as the best indicator,” said Bruce. “So this would be consistent with what seems to have been happening over the past year, which is a gradual decline in murder.”

According to the country’s national crime statistics, released by Police Minister Nathi Mthethwa in Pretoria on Thursday, the country’s murder rate has showed its largest decline since 1995. There were 16 894 South Africans murdered in the year ending March 31, compared with 18 148 murders in the year ending March 2009.

But Bruce said more could be done to bring the murder figures down further. “There is still an intractable problem of violent crime in the country that isn’t being addressed in a comprehensive way,” he said. “If there were more rigorous policies and implementation, they could make more impact on the problem in a much more substantial way.”

Barbara Holtman, leader of research into crime and violence at the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR), said it was “enormously encouraging” when the murder rate comes down.

“It is typically an accurate statistic, whereas many others are not. In South Africa we have developed something of an obsession with crime statistics and I think that is quite largely as a result of their scarcity and the fact that government does not regularly give them to us,” Holtman said. “But in reality, we will know when we are getting safer. Not because the crime statistics tell us, but because it will become acceptable to walk alone at night, or because we worry less about our children when they are not with us, or when we are confident to use public transport.”

The overall drop in several crime categories was satisfactory, said Mthethwa at a press conference, but he admitted more needed to be done.

“We are really encouraged by the significant decline in the murder rate,” said Mthethwa. “Of all crimes, this is one category that you cannot cheat.”

The South African Police Service’s crime statistician, commissioner Chris de Kok, said that research had shown that most murders involved people who knew one another and that a considerable number involved alcohol consumption.

The crime statistics report showed that violent crime was generally on the decline, with attempted murder down by 6.1% and aggravated robbery down by 7,5%. The number of sexual offences dropped by 4,4%, with 26 311 people arrested in connection with sexual crimes last year.

De Kok said the 10,4% drop in street and public space robberies had occurred because of the increased visibility of police, but criminals had adapted and as a result house burglaries and business robberies had increased.

There was a 4,4% increase in business robberies. Most of these robberies involved small businesses, such as spaza shops and informal traders.

Mthethwa said the increase in housebreakings remained a challenge. “For the first time this year this type of crime is stabilising, since it has been increasing at an alarming rate over the past five years, within an average of 25%. Burglary at residential premises increased by 2,7%,” he said.

Holtman said criminals were becoming more aggressive and organised as homeowners increased their security.

“We continue to spend more and more on making our homes into fortresses that opportunistic criminals can’t access,” she said. “As long as we are driven by fear and good marketing by security companies to make it harder and harder to access homes, the more likely criminals are to become more aggressive and organised so that they can access them and steal from us.”

Democratic Alliance spokesperson Dianne Kohler Barnard said it was worrying that residential break-ins had increased again, having soared by 27% the ­previous year.

“This means that South Africans are less safe in their homes than the previous year,” she said.

The Sandton police station reported the highest number of house burglaries.

The number of cash-in-transit heists fell by 7,3% to 358 for 2009-2010, resulting in 52 arrests.

Bank robberies decreased by 8,8%, and car and truck hijacking saw a 6,8% decline. Between 2008 and 2009 there were 14 915 car hijackings, which dropped to 13 902 last year.

Gauteng and KwaZulu-Natal were the provinces worst affected by car hijackings, with 7 444 cases and 3 715 cases respectively.

In the continuing fight against crime, 110 police officers lost their lives during the course of the past year.

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