Why South Africa is so violent

Violent crime is deeply ingrained in the social fabric of the country and cannot simply be solved through the criminal justice system. This is according to a report on the violent nature of crime in South Africa which was made public on Tuesday.

The Centre for the Study of Violence and Reconciliation (CSVR) was contracted to carry out the study in February 2007. A six-part report was submitted to Police Minister Nathi Mthethwa in February last year, which the ministry presented to the parliamentary portfolio committee on police.

The authors said South Africa is one of the most violent countries in the world and the core of the problem with violent crime is a “subculture of violence and criminality”.

Other factors that contribute to the high rates of violent crime in the country include:

  • Inequality, poverty, unemployment and marginalisation;
  • the vulnerability of young people, which is linked to poor child rearing and youth socialisation;
  • values related to violent crime, such as ambivalence towards the law and the normalisation of violence;
  • and an overdependence on an inefficient criminal justice system, and not enough emphasis on other approaches to preventing violent crime

The authors pointed out that 21% of suspects in murders that resulted from an argument and 31% of suspects in crime-related murders were 19 years old or younger. “This indicates that the problem of violent crimes, including serious violent crime, is associated in part with young offenders,” they said.

Violent tendencies
The report found that South Africa’s prisons served to strengthen the violent tendencies of many inmates, saying “the [criminal justice system] remains a double edged sword, which continually reinforces the problem of violence and crime whilst it also mitigates it.”

The authors emphasised the need to make prisons safe in order to address the culture of violence within correctional services.

The report also found that “inequality itself is a key driver of violence” and that certain social mechanisms underpin the status of some South Africans as second-class citizens.

“Violence impacts far more on poor communities than it does on affluent ones — but policies and media attention focus most on violence as it impacts on the well-to-do contributing to the failure to understand and address violence as it impacts on the poor,” said the report.


The authors point out that while “trio crimes” — business robbery, house robbery and hijacking — are considered to be a priority, other violent crimes such as aggravated assault among the poor is deemed less of a priority.

Principal researcher and coordinator of the project, David Bruce said it was time to rethink how we prioritise violent crime.

“It’s been established as a truism that the trio crimes contribute the most to fear and violence. That simply isn’t true,” he said.

According to Bruce, this elevation of trio crimes, as opposed to other forms of violent crime, reflect certain policies which are not sensitive to the poor; the fears of people in government, who themselves are middle class; and how the media echoes the concerns of the middle class.

He said that while the authors were “not being dismissive of the concerns of the middle class, violence against the poor isn’t being given the attention that it should be”.

The report suggested that instead of looking at, for example trio crimes and contact crimes, police should instead prioritise armed violence and sexual violence, whether it involves a weapon or not. “This would be a more equitable way of dealing with the most serious forms of violence that influence the poor,” he said.

Bruce also raised concerns about how much the police ministry had engaged with the report’s recommendations. He pointed out that just a few weeks ago, in discussions about performance agreements in the safety and security portfolio, trio crimes were given prominence. “Does that mean that they haven’t engaged with the report?” he asked.

Antony Altbeker, who authored a component of the report that deals with how exclusion and inequality drives violence in South Africa, said discussions around crime statistics are always centred on whether the police have done well or badly. “But there’s actually very little police can do about much of the crime we see.” he said.

“Trio crimes are some of the most ‘policeable’ crimes there are. It’s very difficult to do much [to solve] the vast majority of violent crimes in South Africa, which happen in social spaces that are hard to police and that involve such a vast proportion of the population,” he said.

Altbeker said that it is not just change in the policing system that is needed but change in society, especially as concerning issues such as social exclusion and unemployment that will bring down levels of violent crime in South African.

“Levels of employment will do absolutely nothing for trio crimes but they can make a difference in the high levels of interpersonal violence and of violence more generally,” said Altbeker.

Subverting the culture of violence
Lydia Chikunga, chair of the portfolio committee on police, said that the responsibility for subverting the culture of violence in South Africa rested with individuals. “It starts with what I do in my home, in front of my children. If I socialise them into thinking that the only way of dealing with a problem is violence, if I’m a worker I think the only way to protest is violent. The police themselves, if their approach is always violent it will have an impact. We are actually inculcating violent behaviour,” she said.

Diane Kohler Barnard, the Democratic Alliance’s shadow minister for police, said she was pleased that the report, which had been handed to the police ministry 21 months ago, had finally been made public but she also wanted to see “a detailed action plan for the way forward”.

“We need to know how much money the report cost to produce and we must know what we’re going to do with it, and how we’re going to implement the findings,” she said. “If we don’t implement the findings, then we’ve wasted untold millions of taxpayers’ money.

“The answer to the problem [of violent crime] is not reports, it’s the implementation of the recommendations,” she added.

CSVR suggestions on how to deal with the sometimes intangible issues which contribute to pervasive violent crime in the country include:

  • Strengthening evidence based crime investigation and prosecution, and improving crime intelligence
  • Emphasising child justice issues
  • Giving more priority to understanding violence in poorer ,high-violence communities
  • Supporting positive youth development
  • Advocating for social mobilisation against violence and creating safety in public spaces
  • Supporting offenders in rehabilitation and reintegrating them into communities after incarceration

Read more on the report.

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