Policing alone cannot solve South Africa’s violence

Effective criminal justice is necessary but not sufficient to reverse trends reflected in the latest police statistics.

12 SEP 2019  

Pretoria, South Africa – The persistent rise of violence in South Africa demonstrates that strengthening the rule of law is crucial but not sufficient for improving public safety.

South Africa urgently needs to support violence prevention programmes, the Institute for Security Studies (ISS) said in response to the latest crime statistics released by the South African Police Service (SAPS) on Thursday 12 September in Parliament.

Police reform and a stronger prosecuting authority are needed in the shorter term. But while effective criminal justice is necessary, it is not sufficient to improve public safety.

Increased government spending on policing and harsher sentences for offenders have not reduced violence. This is because the police cannot keep children safe after school when they are vulnerable, or men from beating their wives and partners. Most murders occur on weekends, and the most frequent cause is arguments between people who know each other. Domestic violence ties with gangsterism as the second-leading cause of murder.

The recent outbreaks of public violence, mostly against foreign nationals, are another warning sign government cannot afford to ignore. Levels of public violence in general are rising.

To address the drivers of violence in South Africa requires an increased investment in programmes proven to work. These include positive parenting programmes, after-school care programmes and anti-bullying programmes at schools. ‘Most violent behaviour is learnt in the home and in communities,’ said Gareth Newham, Head of the Justice and Violence Prevention programme at the ISS. ‘Violence prevention programmes are key to reducing crimes that cannot be policed.’

The ISS once again calls for more regular crime statistics to be made available to the public and civil society. The SAPS statistics released this week are almost six months out of date and do not reflect the current spate of high-profile violent crimes reported in the media. The data covers crimes committed in the financial year from 30 April 2018 and 31 March 2019.   


In the past financial year, the number of murders increased from 56 to 58 a day on average. Over the past seven years murder has risen by 35%. This reverses the downward trend that was evident between 1995 and 2011 during which time murder decreased by 55%.

Second to murders resulting from personal arguments, gang-related disputes and domestic violence are the next most common causes of murder, each resulting in almost as many deaths. Almost 60% of women who are murdered by their partners are shot dead, which shows the importance of tighter controls of gun licenses.

Armed robbery

Armed robbery increased by 1 668 cases to 140 032 (up 1.2%). The increase is the result of a rise in ‘street robbery’. Other types of robbery such as cash-in-transit heists, hijackings and business robberies are down. However, almost 60% of all reported armed robberies take place in streets and other public places with 80 215 cases recorded in the year under review. Street robbery has also increased consistently over the past seven years, with 39% more incidents than in 2011.

Better police leadership

The police have enough skilled operational commanders, resources and technology to tackle violent criminal syndicates and gangs. There are also many competent and honest police in South Africa. But they need the right leadership to be truly effective. An independent National Police Board, as recommended in the National Development Plan, is needed to help the Minister of Police determine whether each of the 230 current SAPS generals have the necessary skills, experience and integrity to professionalise the organisation.

An effective leadership team could clean out and strengthen crime intelligence – an urgent requirement to tackle criminal networks behind most robberies, and enable evidence-based policing.

The capacity of South Africa’s investigators and prosecutors also needs to be boosted. Specialised investigative units are needed at police stations with the highest number of murders and robberies. The SAPS Anti-Corruption Units and the Integrity Management Service need much greater support to identify and remove corrupt, brutal and dishonest police officers. Staff shortages in the SAPS Directorate for Priority Crime Investigation (Hawks) and National Prosecuting Authority need to be addressed as a matter of urgency.

Investigations and prosecutions are the cornerstone of the rule of law. Without success in this area, public trust in the criminal justice system will continue to fall as violent crime increases.  

Focusing on what works to prevent violence

South Africa’s high level of violence is rooted in its violent past and continues across generations. Most violent behaviour is learned or tolerated in the home, communities and schools where children either directly experience or witness violence. 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.  

Government is increasingly aware that addressing violence against children is a necessary condition for sustainable public safety. Encouraging steps are in place to partner with civil society to accelerate action to end violence experienced by children. The World Health Organisation’s INSPIRE framework for example provides evidence-based interventions that have been shown to work, such as increasing firearm control, providing support for parents and caregivers, providing trauma counselling and support for children who experience violence, and strengthening life skills training.

For more information and interview requests contact:

Picture: Ashraf Hendricks/GroundUp

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Professional Policing Protest and Public Violence Monitor


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