SA murder rate halves

11 September 2011 - 12:04 By ROWAN PHILP and MONICA LAGANPARSAD

South Africa has escaped a place among the world's top 10 homicide countries by going after guns, according to global experts.

Now, they say, it will have to go after booze.

Responding to annual crime statistics showing a 53% reduction in the murder rate since 1996, international experts at a violence prevention conference at the University of Cape Town said youth intervention programmes and limiting access to alcohol were the keys to "normalising" the still-high rates.

The SA Police Service crime report, released by the Minister of Police, Nathi Mthethwa, on Thursday, also revealed a 23% drop in hijackings and a 58% decline in bank robberies.

It stated that more arrests of robbers - "sometimes ending in casualties among them" - had also prevented the murders they might have committed.

Breaking down two million crimes committed in the 2010-2011 period, the report said:

  • House robberies declined by 10.1%, and aggravated robbery was down by 10.8%;
  • Murders dipped below 16000 for the first time since 1994, after a 5.3% reduction since last year. Attempted murder was down by 12%;
  • Drug-related crimes were up by almost 12%, although - as with a 6% rise in drunk driving - experts attributed much of the rise to increased arrests;
  • Sexual offences were down 3.1% to 66000, but rape, under a new definition that complicates direct comparison with previous years, remained a staggering 56 000; and
  •  The Western Cape was the worst crime performer, with an increase in murders and significant decreases in only two of 20 crime categories. Gauteng had double-digit drops in 15 of those categories, and Mpumalanga showed huge decreases in murder and attempted murder.

Mthethwa said: "Police, joined by society, are gaining an upper hand against vicious criminals." But, he admitted: ''We cannot seriously say we are winning the war against rape."

John Carnochan, Detective Chief Superintendent for Scotland's Strathclyde police force, said the drastic drop in shooting murders - with fewer people now killed by bullets than by "sharp objects" - showed the impact of firearms amnesties and stricter gun control laws.

He said a new liquor law passed by the Western Cape government last week, to clamp down on shebeens and public drinking in residential areas from January 2012, would probably show immediate results, and pave the way for another national decline in murders.

"If you'd have told me in 1996 that you could reduce the level of homicides that quickly, I'd have said that's really ambitious - so it's well done to South Africa," said Carnochan. "But there's no doubt that, here, alcohol has an absolutely significant effect on all forms of violence."

Dr Alexander Butchart, prevention of violence coordinator for the World Health Organisation, said South Africa now ranked alongside Russia and Brazil for its level of criminal violence, but well below the highest rates in Venezuela and Honduras.

"South Africa is certainly no longer the world capital for homicide, though the figures remain very high," said Butchart. "As with [Brazil and Russia], economic inequality is a major driver of crime, but South Africa has the combination of access to alcohol and guns."

On Friday, Western Cape premier Helen Zille called the rise in alcohol- and drug-related violence "a pandemic", saying that 80% of violent crime in the province was associated with alcohol abuse.

Gareth Newham, head of crime and justice at the Institute for Security Studies, said Colombia's capital Bogota had slashed its murder rate from 82 per 100000 to just 18 per 100000 by cracking down on liquor. Newham said most of South Africa's 15940 murders were alcohol related, and more than half of the victims were intoxicated when they died, many in lethal drunken fights.

Mark Wiley, DA chairman of the Western Cape's community safety committee, said policing was a national mandate, and accused Mthethwa of having "neglected" police resources in the Western Cape .

"This is a disaster and national disgrace," said Wiley. "How is it possible that in the province that is considered . . . the most efficient and successful is now also one of the worst policed in South Africa?"

Mthethwa's spokesman, Zweli Mnisi, said crime reductions were thanks to "partnerships with communities", and said he concurred with experts on the positive impact of the SAPS crackdown on illegal and stolen guns.

Dr Catherine Ward, chairwoman of UCT's violence initiative steering committee, said the police had done "a commendable job", but that there was now a greater need for social workers to help prevent serious crime.