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With the lifting of the moratorium on crime statistics lat week analysts were caught in a bit of a double bind. If the statistics are not reliable, how then can one comment on the trends which they appear to reflect?

Indeed, Minister of Safety and Security, Steve Tshwete came under fire from some newspapers, not for using them selectively, but because of his attempts to found claims of improvements in the situation on statistics which he simultaneously condemned as 'unreliable'.

While there is no doubt room for improvement in the SAPS systems for recording statistics what would also be worthwhile would be for the SAPS to report the statistics in a manner which promotes public understanding. Their current reports, for instance, group various sub-categories of crime under the headings 'violent crime', 'social fabric crime' and 'property related crime'. While murder is reported under 'violent crime' other key forms of violent crime – assault, rape, and robbery - are reported in the 'social fabric' and 'property crime' categories.

While there are reservations about the accuracy of the statistics, they nevertheless have been relied on in the past, at least to indicate broad trends in reported crime. Assuming that the latest statistics do in fact reflect underlying crime trends, they contain something of a mixed picture about the state of crime in South Africa.

While there is positive news for South African in the form of major declines in the murder rate, more broadly the statistics point to an overall increase in levels of violent crime.

The SAPS statistics on murder over the last 7 years indicate that the murder rate has declined substantially in South Africa from a high of 70 per 100 000 (roughly 26 800 murders) in 1994 to 49 per 100 000 in 2000, a decrease of close to 30%. Similarly attempted murder has declined from 71 to 64 per 100 000.

Even though these declines are substantial, rates of murder in South Africa continue to be high by the standards of the vast majority of other countries. The major decline in murder has also not been matched in other violent crime categories.

Recorded rape (including attempted rape) in fact reached its highest point in 1997 at 127 per 100 000 (52 000 cases). The 2000 figure of 120 per 100 000 is lower than this, yet it is still significantly higher than the 1994 figure of 110 per 100 000.

In other violent crime categories recorded crime has increased significantly. Over the years 1994 to 2000 common assault has increased from 502 to 569 per 100 000 while assault GBH has increased from 544 to 624 per 100 000.

The category of violent crime which has reflected the most striking increases in this period is the crime of robbery. While robbery with aggravating circumstances increased from 220 to 251 per 100 000 during the 1994 to 2000 period (it in fact reached a low of 167 per 100 000 in 1996), 'other robbery' has increased steadily and dramatically from 84 to 198 per 100 000, an increase of 135%.

While there has been an overall decline in rates of theft of, and out, of motor vehicles, the increase in robbery - which amounts to 'violent property crime' - is also matched by increases in some categories of property crime such as 'other thefts' and 'residential housebreaking'.

While the statistics point to significant declines in murder and attempted murder, more generally they indicate broad increases in levels of violent crime. In combination the figures for the categories of violent crime referred to indicate that recorded violent crime has increased from 1600 to 1876 incidents per 100 000 during the 1994 to 2000 period. This points to a paradoxical situation where, while the number of violent crimes may be increasing, these crimes are becoming less fatal.

The current statistics have been condemned as "unreliable" but this may be said to be a feature of all crime statistics which, with the exception of murder statistics, usually seriously under-represent crime. This is partly because statistics are influenced by changes in levels of reporting by the public and in police recording practises. It is not unheard of, for instance, for members of the police to fail to record cases of crime, sometimes for reason of disinterest or prejudice against the victim, or in a deliberate attempt to keep the statistics down, due to the fact that increases in recorded crime are usually seen as reflecting badly on the police.

Many, particularly less serious, cases are also not reported by victims who cannot be bothered to do so. Thus the current South African statistics record levels of assault GBH as being higher than 'common assault' even though the latter crime is likely to be far more prevalent. Other factors such as intimidation and fear of the police or of public humiliation, also discourage people from reporting crime.

Conversely there is a high likelihood that an incident will be reported if goods which are stolen or damaged are insured. Indeed the availability of insurance is sometimes known to be the motive for fraudulent crime reports where thefts or robberies which have not actually occurred are reported and these end up recorded in crime statistics.

The advent of democracy in South Africa, and implementation of strategies such as community policing, is also likely to have caused some level of improved reporting, though analysts are unclear as to how this has impacted on recorded crime levels, and whether this is still a factor which is contributing to increases in reporting.

Newly introduced policies may also impact on these levels. Thus the latest SAPS report argues that the increases in levels of assault and assault GBH "could be expected" as a result of the implementation of the 1998 Domestic Violence Act, which, amongst other changes, makes arrests mandatory in certain circumstances.

An improvement in police systems for data collection is a further factor which may contribute to increases in levels of recorded crime. However this is one factor which has presumably not impacted on the recently released and 'still unreliable' statistics.

There are therefore a number of possible contributing factors to changes in levels of recorded crime. However the latest statistics nevertheless suggest strongly that violent crime, and particularly robbery, has increased significantly in the post-1994 period. This is recognised in the SAPS report, released last week, which describes increases in robbery as "the most worrying trend" demonstrated by the statistics.

Interestingly however the statistics indicate that hijacking (of cars and trucks), cash in transit heists and bank robberies, have all declined by a few percentage points over the last few years. Statistics on robberies in these three categories, which are recorded both separately and as part of the 'aggravated robbery' category, indicate that they accounted for less than 20% of the total number of robberies in the latter category in 2000.

Hijacking, cash in transit heists, and bank robberies are the forms of robbery which have been most highlighted by the media, reflecting not only their 'intrinsic" newsworthiness, but also the fact that they are the crimes which have the most direct impact on the more wealthy, and powerful, citizens of our society. As a result they have also tended to be the focus of some of the major crime combating initiatives involving the SAPS and private sector.

While these initiatives appear to have had some effect the latest SAPS statistics suggest that our more general responses to crime, and violent crime particularly, have not as yet really begun to address this problem in an effective manner. This suggests the need for us to rethink our approaches, not only to combating crime, but to understanding and addressing the underlying causes of the problem.

David Bruce is a Senior Researcher in the Criminal Justice Programme at the Centre for the Study of Violence and Reconciliation.
In The Sunday Independent, 10 June 2001.

© Centre for the Study of Violence and Reconciliation