With 58 murders and 114 rapes reported a day, this week’s crime statistics shine a harsh spotlight on the capability of the state to enforce the rule of law. But perhaps most importantly, the gloomy data tells us that our criminal justice system might not be enough to improve public safety.
Broadly, the trend of the last six years is a cause for concern. The rate of murder has jumped by a hefty 35%, despite increased government spending on public order and safety and increasingly harsher sentences for violent crimes. Worryingly, this is a reversal of a downward trend between 2006 and 2012 during which time murder fell by more than 16%.
That there is a problem with our policing is not in dispute. Though the population increased from around 52-million in 2012 to some 58-million today, there are 10,000 fewer police officers on our streets than is needed. Moreover, the depletion of officer numbers in our police stations has taken an extraordinary toll on communities.
In July, hundreds of citizens in a suburb in Port Elizabeth shut down their neighbourhood to express anger at the lack of a police presence in the area and demanded a new police station. There will be more such protests.
Then in May, three men were beaten to death after they allegedly tried to break into the home of an elderly woman, whose screams for help triggered a hunt by community members for the intruders. In countries whose murder rate is not comparable to the death rate of a country involved in a low-intensity civil war, the first reaction would have been to call the police.
But residents knew that a 10111 call would have been a waste of time. They have read stories of the police showing up too late at a crime scene. So they didn’t bother.
Perhaps the most striking example of our overwhelmed police force’s inability to keep us safe and maintain public order is Cape Town, where the army stepped in to quell gang violence in the impoverished parts of the city where more than 900 people had been killed as of July 2019.
Other than that, immense corruption under former president Jacob Zuma corroded almost every layer of government including crucial parts of the police: the crime intelligence division and the Hawks, the directorate for priority crime.
The so-called elite crime-fighting divisions within the police have corrupt and politically connected police officers, thereby stripping these units of the capacity to fight organised crime.
Police minister Bheki Cele told reporters he has noticed a disturbing trend in which more people are getting into organised crime, which can only flourish with the help of high-level police officers on the payroll of criminal enterprises.
These are the type of crimes that should be picked up by the crime intelligence division which, had it been functioning properly, would have predicted and prevented the gang violence on the Cape Flats, where street gangs are often linked to highly organised global drug-trafficking networks.
However, Cele rightly pointed out that more and more violent contact crime is beyond policing. “There is a very high number of people that are murdered by people they know,” he commented.
There is not much the police can do when a spouse pulls out a gun and shoots his wife in their home. Or when a university student is attacked and killed while picking up the post.
We learn violent behaviour at home, in communities and schools, where children are physically beaten by teachers and parents or are exposed to violent images in their communities, researchers say.
Many people grow up believing that violence is an acceptable way to solve disputes or assert authority. This drives much of the violence that occurs between men in public places, and at home against women, the Institute for Security Studies says.
SA faces a plethora of problems that fuel violence, but we need more holistic answers than just putting more police officers on our streets and pumping money into the system.
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