The Failure Of The National Crime Prevention Strategy : Rejoinder To The Institute Of Security Studies

According to the media, a recent Institute of Security Studies report attributes the failure of the National Crime Prevention Strategy to its not being linked to underlying socio-economic causes, and reportedly downplays the role of the police. Socio-economic conditions contribute to crime, but it is an oversimplification to place the emphasis on poverty, unemployment, lack of education and inadequate social services, and it stigmatises the poor at the expense of better off crime kingpins. Continuing high levels of crime are, above all, a glaring indictment of the failure of the criminal justice system.

Crime and socio-economic context

While there is no denying that bureaucratic incompetence and corruption (both of which have there roots in the pre-1994 period) have retarded service delivery, there is no way in which gross disparities in health, education, and social spending in general, inherited from the apartheid era, could have been rectified in a mere fourteen years.  Glib references to a lack of education ignore the crippling legacy of Bantu Education, which will take decades to eradicate – for educators who were themselves badly taught are likely to perpetuate past errors.

Poverty and unemployment do not necessarily spawn crime (and nor do they, in themselves, threaten national security). There are poor societies all over the world which have nowhere near the crime rate that South Africa, especially in terms of violent crime, does. Studies of slum populations, for example, have shown that amidst high unemployment levels, people often manage to subsist through informal sector activities and reciprocal networks[i].

High levels of violent crime are not new – they have simply spread from the ghettoes of apartheid, where they were unchecked (and often fomented) by the State. Over many decades, black South Africans were criminalised for petty offences, such as beer brewing and the contravention of pass laws, many learning the ways of hardened criminals during their time in prison. Over a century of labour migrancy destroyed normal family life for millions, with children growing up without fathers (and often mothers), some of them exposed from an early age to the violence of single sex hostel life. The importance of stable family life – including the presence of suitable male role models – for children’s moral development[ii] is beyond dispute, and it is disgraceful that the present government has done little, if anything, to address migrancy-related problems. At the same time, the use of violence to solve problems is common to all racial groups (one has only to drive on our roads), with family killings by white South Africans having historically been among the highest in the world.

In terms of crime generally, blaming socio-economic conditions obscures the high levels of fraud and white collar crime, involving people who cannot claim to be disadvantaged – and the fact that it is the better off who often run syndicates which recruit poor people, e.g. to steal cars. Organised crime involving drug running is a prime example of how the failure to deal with affluent people who run syndicates perpetuates a system in which the poor are recruited as the visible face of drug running. Organised crime fuels ‘ordinary’ crime, for poor addicts need to steal to feed their habit.

In-depth qualitative research on drug-running related violence in the USA shows the complexity of links between unemployment and crime, for even when jobs are available, they may be spurned because they are menial and low paying. The lure of drug running is that it provides status through income higher than that for minimal wage jobs – and South Africa is a very status conscious society.[iii]

The importance of the criminal justice system

In all societies of the world, no matter how simple the social organisation, the quest for justice is fundamental: If there is no justice, if the norms and values of society are not upheld by those vested by its members with the authority to do so, disorder and lawlessness will threaten the fabric of society.[iv] The mechanisms employed to dispense justice depend on the nature of particular societies and in modern States it is the police and the courts which are charged with this responsibility.

The prime reason for the failure of the Crime Prevention Strategy in South Africa lies with policing.  The assertion by the police that most violent crime is social contact crime, much of which is beyond police control must be challenged.  Firstly, given notoriously low conviction rates for serious crime, what is the factual basis for this statement? Secondly, there appear to be serious problems with the Crime Intelligence component, for community members often seem to know more about where the criminals and guns are, and who is under threat, than the police do. [v]

While there are good detectives, they are generally assigned to high profile and high priority cases. Statement taking by police members is often atrocious and – like lost evidence, and perjury by police members – ruins cases for court. The majority of serious crimes go undetected, especially when victims live in townships and rural areas. The ISS report notes the vacuum left by the disbanding of the commando system. It is quite correct that there are serious problems with rural safety, but the commando system did nothing to protect most of the victims, poor black people – in fact there are numerous cases on record of abuse at the hands of commando members. Rural safety is indivisible and the failure to deal with crime in historically disadvantaged areas leads to its spilling over into farms and middle class suburbs.  Take, e.g. continuing high levels of crime in rural Macambini, which spills over into numerous farm attacks on neighbouring Mangete, as well as the nearby N2 where local thugs have rendered travel, especially at night, unsafe.[vi]

There are serious problems with the management of the SAPS, evidenced by personal testimonies from victims, and regular media reports about corruption, abuse of power, the escape of awaiting trial prisoners and the theft of guns. These problems impact negatively on those police members striving to do their best – who may be victims of nepotism. having been bypassed for promotion at the expense of incompetent colleagues.

While socio-economic development remains of pressing importance – as does the provision of a nurturing family environment for children – the real priority is the urgent restructuring of the South African Police Service, and the upgrading of members’ skills. It is only when it becomes obvious that crime does not pay (and it does at present) that levels are likely to drop significantly.

  1. There are numerous sociological and anthropological studies of slums and informal settlements which support this argument, e.g. Lloyd P 1979 Slums of Hope Penguin; Lomnitz L 1977 Networks and Marginality : Life in a Mexican Shanty Town
  2. The link between the breakdown of morality and crime is made by, among others, Rauch J in ISS Monograph 114, April 2005, at www.iss.co.za/pubs
  3. Phillippe Bourgois 1993 ‘Crack in Spanish Harlem’ in Haviland W and R Gordon Talking about People Haviland’; Dembo et al 1993 ‘Crack Cocaine Dealing by Adolescents in Two Public Housing Projects : A Pilot Study’ Human Organization Vol 52 No 1.  With regard to the preoccupation with status de Haas M ‘Of joints and jollers : culture and class in Natal Shebeens’ in Preston-Whyte E and C Rogerson (eds) South Africa’s Informal Economy Cape Town : Oxford University Press
  4. This position is spelt out more fully in de Haas 1993 ‘Violence and the Criminal Justice System’, a comparative look at justice cross-culturally, prepared for the Goldstone Commission
  5. This section draws on first hand information provided by victims and members of the SAPS – including through cases followed up – as well as media reports