Partnerships ‘beating crime in SA’

11 April 2006

The past few years have seen a remarkable crime turnaround in South Africa, thanks in large part to public-private partnerships. So observes The Economist in a survey of South Africa contained in its 8 April issue.

According to The Economist, the most visible result of the dramatic reduction in crime in Johannesburg, the country’s financial capital, has been the swift regeneration of the city centre.

The Economist survey: South Africa Business Against Crime
And it singles out Business Against Crime, the organisation that pioneered a successful model using private sector know-how to combat crime with a mixture of public and private money, as the driving force behind the turnaround.

Business Against Crime set up its closed-circuit TV surveillance cameras in Johannesburg’s central business district (CBD) after the success of a similar scheme in Cape Town. Within 18 months, street crime had dropped by 80%.

“Bank robberies, once common in the CBD, have become rare,” The Economist reports. “And whereas only a couple of years ago people avoided using their mobile phones in the streets to avoid attracting muggers, they now talk into them with gusto.”

Applying the model elsewhere
Business Against Crime’s model is now being applied to other parts of South Africa’s criminal justice system, such as the slow processing of criminal cases.

“BAC spent R31-million over several years on getting outside experts to analyse the flow of cases, from the initial reporting of an incident in a police station to the arrival (or not) of the case in court,” The Economist reports.

“On the basis of this research, the government spent about R2-billion on reforming the whole system.

“Perhaps partly as a result, conviction rates – a dismal 8% in 2000 – are beginning to creep up.”

General decrease in crime
According to the author of The Economist’s report, the crime turnaround in Johannesburg may also have helped to bring down crime in South Africa as a whole.

The report cites government statistics indicating that:

  • The overall murder rate for the country is down by over 40% from its peak in the mid-1990s. The murder rate in Soweto, Johannesburg’s world-famous township, is down by as much as 60%. 
  • Violent crime in general has fallen by 8% in the two years 2004-05. 
  • Property crimes have declined by 11% in the same period. 
  • The number of car thefts in 2004-05 was the lowest on record.

The Economist notes that “areas of concern” remain, with cash-in-transit robberies on the increase and a large number of firearms still in circulation – “a legacy of South Africa’s apartheid-era wars with its neighbours.”

400 000 ‘guardian angels’
At national level too, SA’s private sector has “energetically moved into crime prevention to fill the void left by the state in the 1990s,” the report notes, citing official figures showing that 265 000 people are now working in the “guarding” business in South Africa – almost double the number of regular police force members.

Counting related occupations such as private investigators and in-house security guards, the report estimates that the total number working in the country’s private security industry may be as high as 400 000.

“With that sort of investment, it would be astonishing if crime had not come down in the past few years,” The Economist notes.

Government’s role
South Africa’s government has also played its part in the improvement.

“In the mid-1990s the state police force suddenly had to transform itself from an instrument of political repression into a crime-fighting force,” the report notes. “Many (mainly white) officers left and numbers dropped, but with better pay they have since risen again, to about 150 000.”

Antony Altbeker, a researcher at the Institute for Security Studies, told The Economist that increased social security provision by the state had also helped to reduce crime in one of its largest categories – namely, crime among people who know each other.

Altbeker, pointing to research showing that as much as half of all crimes fall into this category, argues that increases in state pensions and child support since 1994 have moderated “some of the petty squabbling and inter-personal violence within families, including murders.” reporter

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