/ 5 March 2013

Henke Pistorius and the reality of crime in South Africa

Henke Pistorius And The Reality Of Crime In South Africa

Oscar Pistorius himself cited fear of crime to explain how he came to kill Reeva Steenkamp but it was his father who this week unleashed a political storm by bringing race to that claim.

"Some of the guns are for hunting and some are for protection, the hand guns," Henke Pistorius told Britain's Telegraph on Tuesday. "It speaks to the ANC government, look at white crime levels, why protection is so poor in this country, it's an aspect of our society."

The Pistorius family quickly sought to distance themselves from Pistorius's sentiments and the ANC reacted with anger. Outrage and condemnation rained down from far and wide. Except, perhaps, from the many white South Africans who share Henke Pistorius's belief that white people are under siege by crime and must arm and protect themselves against it.

It is a perception as common as it is wrong.

Thanks to administrative decisions to drop race from various forms, poor record-keeping and the lack of low-level crime data, it is extremely difficult to say how the impact of crime changed for white people between the end of apartheid and today. It is also, arguably, a useless comparison.

But comparing how crime affects black and white people is somewhat simpler, especially where the geographic lines that divide class still largely divide race. From those comparisons it is clear that the risk for rape, aggravated assault and robbery, as well as murder and attempted murder is considerably greater for the poor black township dweller than, say, a rich white person – and that includes an iconic Olympian and Paralympian.

According to the Institute for Security Studies, in the Boschkop area of Pretoria – where Pistorius's Silver Woods home is situated – there were 541 cases of serious assault in the past five years. Less than 10 minutes away, at one of the police stations that serves Mamelodi township, there were 2 840 similar cases reported.

In Brooklyn, the police district where Pistorius made his home after being released on bail, there were 55 murders reported over the last five years. On the other side of Pretoria, in Atteridgeville, there were 258.

Numbers indicative of race
The numbers are only indicative of race, ignoring black residents of upper-class areas and, by the same token, assuming no white people visit townships and experience crime there. But the trend holds true across police reporting districts, even where it initially seems not to.

"If you look at Milnerton in Cape Town you'll find the crime rate is high but that has both high-income areas and informal areas under it. The same is true of Honeydew [in Johannesburg]," says Lizette Lancaster, who manages the institute's crime hub.

Lancaster cautions that demographics can be hard to discern from police districts, which are still concentrated in formerly white areas, and which can serve vastly different numbers of residents. But data from other sources, which did not focus on race, showed the same discrepancy between white and black crime rates. One recent study by the Medical Research Council, drawing on reports from mortuaries rather than police statistics, found that more than 90% of gun homicide victims were black.

Black people make up slightly less than 80% of the total population.

But are white people disproportionately worried about crime, considering the high overall rate of crime and the very real danger they face?

Hard metrics on perceptions of crime among different race groups, such as spending on private security measures, are badly skewed by income and perception surveys tend to be based on small, urban surveys. A notable exception was the Victims of Crime Survey by Statistics South Africa, which was last published in September 2012 and utilised data from more than 34 000 individuals.

Those numbers showed white South Africans were very afraid indeed, far more so than those with more to fear.

White people 50% more afraid
Nearly half the white households surveyed said crime prevented them from going to parks or other open spaces. A little under a third of those surveyed said they avoided public transport due to crime and a quarter said they would not walk to shops.

Black families shared the same fears but to a much lesser extent. A comparison between black and white households implied that white people were between 50% and four times more afraid of crime than their black counterparts who lived in significantly more dangerous areas.

The same survey asked individuals whether they experienced various types of crime during the previous 12 months. Among black people, 2.1% reported they had been victim to robbery, assault or a sexual attack. For white people the percentage was just a hair over 1.4%.

Statistically, Oscar Pistorius may have a legitimate claim to fear of crime. But if he shares his father's sentiment that he should be afraid because he is white, then he has got it all wrong.