Murder is not just murder by numbers

23 September 2018 - 00:00

The number 57 has murdered sleep. If 57 people are murdered every day, no wonder we're having sleepless nights. And no wonder SA is ranked sixth-lowest out of 142 countries in the Gallup Law and Order Index, which measures perceptions of personal safety.
Statistics do not give the whole picture, however. Guy Lamb, director of UCT's Safety and Violence Initiative, said the inhabitants of some nations surveyed by Gallup might not feel safe enough to be honest about how unsafe they felt, which could explain why countries run by warlords scored better than SA.
South Africans are not afraid to admit to being afraid, and the latest victim numbers have considerably raised our fear factor. But why do we count only the victims?
Murder victims deserve to be counted, and no-one should diminish the emotional and economic devastation wrought by the unnatural deaths of mothers and fathers, sons and daughters, sisters and brothers, wives and husbands - but our outrage should be directed at the killers. Just how many of them are there, and who are they?
Outrage, by the way, does not justify the oxymoron "mob justice", which contributes significantly to the murder statistics. Vigilantes who kill suspected murderers are also murderers.
Which brings us back to the missing numbers. It seems fair to assume that a lot of murders are committed by more than one person. In addition to active participants, many murders happen in front of other people, and many murderers are protected by other people, making all those people accessories to murder.
Let's take a conservative guess that for every murder victim there are on average five guilty parties. That makes 285 people a day who cause another person's life to end prematurely. And most of them walk freely among us.
A study by the department of justice found that only one in 10 reported murder cases resulted in a conviction within two years of the crime. This was published in 1997, but there does not appear to have been significant improvement, and the report's conclusion is as relevant today as it was 20 years ago: "Very low conviction rates are an incentive to criminals. We cannot expect to see a significantly lower incidence of crime in SA until investigation and prosecution improves dramatically."
The number 285, conjecture though it might be, is more terrifying than the number 57. How are we supposed to sleep, knowing that every year 100,000 names are added to the list of people who might harm us?
But wait now. On that list there are certainly murderers of whom we should be afraid. There are vile and vicious individuals who cold-bloodedly kill old ladies and children. But the number 285 also includes some people who did not mean to commit murder, many people who will never commit murder again (whether convicted or not) and some whose criminal status is a matter of some debate.
One of these is biotechnology professor Sean Davison, who helped his terminally ill mother and, more recently, a quadriplegic friend end their lives, at their request, because they did not wish to go on suffering. Active euthanasia is not yet legal in SA and so Davison has been charged with murder.
Now, while most South Africans double-check their locks at night, no-one does this because they're worried about Davison paying them a visit. On the contrary, he has helped quite a few people sleep easier. During the Truth and Reconciliation Commission he used advanced DNA analysis to identify murder victims buried in mass graves, and the forensic rape kit he developed - which is provided free to the police - has enabled the identification and prosecution of those who committed gang rape.
So, while the crime rate in SA is abominably high, and while we are not wrong to be cautious, it is some small comfort to remember that statistics never tell the whole story.
• Read Sue de Groot's 'word in the hand' column every Friday on Times Select (select.timeslive.co.za). Free to Sunday Times subscribers

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