Covid-19 lockdowns gave SA a 'temporary' reprieve from crime — but we're back up where we started: Crime experts
“We saw a huge dip in a number of crimes under levels five and four. But then they started shooting up again as soon as the levels opened up,” said Lizette Lancaster of the Institute for Security Studies.
When SA went into hard lockdown over a year ago, experts and analysts were keen to see if the country’s high crime rate would drop significantly.
As people were allowed to leave their homes only for specific, permitted reasons and strict curfews came into effect, the general expectation was that crime would drop — which it did, under the tightest lockdown restrictions.
“We saw a huge dip in a number of crimes under levels five and four. But then they started shooting up again as soon as the levels opened up. With property-related crimes we were seeing levels higher than those recorded in the previous three years,” said Lizette Lancaster, project manager of the Institute for Security Studies’ crime and justice information and analysis hub.
The same trends, she said, were seen in carjackings and robberies, with crime levels in general now the same as those experienced before the Covid-19 pandemic.
“When it comes to murder, it is both fascinating and disturbing to see that the top 30 police stations reporting the crime are urban-based, in Cape Town, Gqeberha, eThekwini and Gauteng. These are 2.6% of the country’s police stations and they are reporting 22.5% of the country’s murders,” Lancaster said.
She said these new insights were one of the positive outcomes of the SA Police Service’s recent decision to release crime statistics every quarter, rather than annually.
“What we have seen is that lockdown and curfews had a temporary impact, but that it is not sustainable, it has not solved the violence we see and that the diversion of police resources in terms of the Disaster Management Act is offering new opportunities to criminals,” Lancaster said.
Ntebaleng Morake of the Social Justice Coalition, who focused on crime in poor and working class communities during lockdown, said crime appeared to be both a gender and class issue.
“High levels of crime and violence in low-income communities have resulted in massive distrust in the police, low levels of reporting and high levels of mob justice killings,” she said.
Morake warned: “The police are seen to discriminate on the basis of race and poverty, and this needs to be rectified or we will continue to see a rise in vigilante attacks.”
Senior researcher Richard Chelin, also of the Institute for Security Studies, said that while organised crime was ongoing in the areas of cash-in-transit heists, narcotics, wildlife smuggling, copper cable theft and money laundering — lockdown had served only to provide new opportunities for those involved.
Defining organised crime as “three or more people acting in concert to obtain financial benefit, operating in the underworld and who are highly corrupt”, Chelin said organised crime was a huge cost to the economy in terms of lost taxes, the impact on individuals and the threat to national security.
“In lockdown level five we saw the introduction of a ban on alcohol. People immediately saw this as an opportunity, and organised crime was not found wanting,” Chelin said, adding that the travel bans and the closing of borders also saw disruptions to the illicit drug market.
“But what that did was create a higher demand,” he said, explaining how just a few months after restrictions were eased police were able to make the biggest cocaine and meth drug bust in history.
These new operations that had been established have continued to operate after the bans were lifted, resulting in new brands of illicit cigarettes that have not been taxed and don’t comply with tobacco regulations still being sold on the black market.
“The data we have on seizures (of illicit goods) is just a tiny portion of what is trading, but that is also the key to understanding what is really happening,” Chelin said.
Maj-Gen Charl Annandale of the SAPS said police were working on plans and strategies to combat the crime trends that had emerged in lockdown, and were outlined in the National Crime Combating Strategy.
He said intelligence gathering, high visibility, good communication and the reactive detecting of organised crime were key elements.
“The ultimate aim is to stabilise and then combat crime,” he said, adding that they had been successful in policing lockdown restrictions.
He said more than 400,000 South Africans had been caught for lockdown violations, most of them being from the Western Cape, where 107,000 cases were recorded. This was followed by the Free State with about 67,000 cases and Gauteng with just under 60,000.
Of the total, 47,000 people had been found guilty, more than 40,000 had been found not guilty, about 260,000 cases had been withdrawn and 1,676 people had been jailed.