‘Spiraling Out Of Control’: Recent Stats Reveal South Africa’s Crime Conundrum

Published 10 months ago
Members of SAPS and SANDF enforce lockdown regulations in Sea Point and Parklands
(Photo by Gallo Images/Roger Sedres)

Over 6,000 murders in three months. Recent crime statistics point to underlying social tensions, wealth inequality, organized crime, and scrutinize the government’s response, including police reform and crime intelligence in South Africa.

South Africa’s Minister of Police, Bheki Cele, recently presented the country’s quarterly crime statistics to the public, and the results reveal a bloody conflict being waged in one of Africa’s central hubs. In just three months, over 6,000 people were murdered in the country, almost three murders every hour. Increases in attempted murder, assault, and vigilantism were also observed. Delving deeper into the numbers reveals a population under immense pressure from social tensions, wealth inequality, and organized crime. “We established that 872 of the murders were attributable to arguments, misunderstandings, road rage, and provocation,” said Major General Sekhukhune, the head of Police Crime Research and Statistics, during a presentation of the statistics on May 30. Opposition parties and human rights organizations across the country responded with fury to the numbers, citing a failure of the government to reverse a steadily increasing tide of crime.

“We can no longer allow violent crimes to continue with impunity. The justice system has to act as a deterrent, and the first step is ensuring that the police can conduct thorough, efficient, and transparent investigations into all killings, and ensure that the perpetrators are charged in accordance with the law,” Amnesty International South Africa Executive Director Shenilla Mohamed said in a press statement. The Democratic Alliance (DA) Shadow Minister for Police was similarly biting. “Criminals have declared war on the people of South Africa. Crime is spiraling out of control,” said the DA’s Andrew Whitfield in a statement responding to the statistics. While much of the crimes reported represent interpersonal conflict, experts point to a confluence of issues such as lack of trust in the police and a normalization of violence as salient factors in the high numbers.


“People are often exposed to violence [in South Africa], whether it’s in their homes or the communities… a higher level than in many other parts of the world,” says Gareth Newham, Head of Justice and Violence Prevention at the Institute for Security Studies (ISS), to FORBES AFRICA. “And so we kind of get caught in this way in which people generally think that violence is normal–and when you think about this is normal, you could use it.” This normalization is clear both in normative criminal acts, and the increasing rates of vigilantism or mob justice, also seen in the recent crime statistics. Newham makes it clear that this is also indicative of a high level of distrust in the willingness and capability of the South African Police Service to police crime, resulting in citizens taking the law into their own hands. This vigilantism was most prominently visible in the July 2021 Unrest in the country which saw many community policing forums, private security members, and ordinary citizens band together to protect their homes and businesses against rioters, an action which begot both criticism of such vigilante justice as well as further highlighting public mistrust in the police service. “The state has the legal authority to use violence in order to enforce the accepted rules and regulations of the country,” says Newham. “And when that breaks down, other actors start using violence for their own interests, whereas the state suppresses rights in the public interest.” Also under scrutiny are the country’s intelligence and crime intelligence capabilities, with the last few weeks seeing the murder of an eyewitness outside of a courthouse as well as the murder of a wanted Bulgarian fugitive in the suburbs of Constantia, in Cape Town. While the published statistics don’t deal directly with the actions of police crime intelligence, these recent visible crimes highlight the need for proper action, and formed part of President Cyril Ramaphosa’s budget speech yesterday, May 31, emphasizing that reform of the intelligence service more broadly was underway as part of the implementation of the recommendations by an

Expert Panel on the July 2021 Unrest commission. Newham, however, highlights that despite this political posture from the Presidency, there has been little clarity or accountability in these structures. “We only have his word that he’s reforming the intelligence services because there’s been zero plans presented publicly in any forum about what those reforms look like,” he continues. “But nowhere in the public sphere, not before parliament or anywhere else are there clear plans on what’s to be done in terms of Intelligence.” Increases in the rate of kidnapping underscore the need for performance within the Police Crime Intelligence services, says the DA’s Whitfield. “The 51.2% spike in kidnappings over the last quarter points to a failure of crime intelligence and a well-entrenched culture of impunity among criminals who no longer fear consequences for their criminal actions,” he said. Despite the dire nature of South Africa’s crime statistics, police claim to be taking strong steps to combat the rising numbers, with Minister Cele having recently deployed 3,000 new law enforcement officers in Gauteng, and 10,000 new police recruits having joined as constables at the end of 2022. The Police Service also had some noted successes, with a major Rwandan genocide suspect arrested last week. Fulgence Kayishema was alleged to have participated in a massacre in 1994 that caused over 2,000 deaths in Rwanda, and was arrested after an intelligence-driven operation.

Several men believed to have been part of an Israeli syndicate were also arrested and face extradition after an intelligence-driven operation late last year, both instances pointing to continuing function within the Police Service. An additional $3.5 million has also been allocated to high-risk jurisdictions and specialized units are being further developed to deal with high-risk actions, said the minister Cele. “The SAPS is also enhancing specialized tracking teams who will be trained further at provincial and district level, to effectively track and apprehend offenders.” Experts believe that the challenges, primarily structural, are not likely to be rectified within the short term.

“For the last five to 10 years, certainly the crime statistics indicate that there hasn’t been an improvement,” says Newham. “It’s not that we don’t have the resources or the people… what we lack is political leadership… and policy and strategy around reducing crime.” However, with South Africa approaching a cold winter suffering from low levels of service delivery, high costs of living, and an unreliable electricity supply, the specter of the previous 2021 July Unrest raises its head, and it’s clear South Africans increasingly require strong action from the state and the police. “If the government continues failing to create a safe environment for all, it is violating the right to life and security of the person, and must be held accountable. The buck stops with the government,” added Mohamed.