In May, police minister Beki Cele praised the South African Police Service’ (SAPS) ‘more boots on the ground’ approach to fighting crime. His speech left many commentators perplexed, as a review of the latest official crime statistics for January to March 2023 showed that murder is still on the rise.
‘[I]t is unmistakable that the decision to upscale visible policing and disruptive operations from Thursdays to Mondays in all provinces IS WORKING!’ Cele said. ‘More boots on the ground are pushing back on criminality through provincial intelligence-led operations to take down individuals or criminal syndicates hell-bent on terrorising communities.’
Visible policing alone isn’t enough to curb violent crime. It must be supported by evidence-informed analysis, effective detection, trust-building with the public, and meaningful partnerships.
Perhaps the minister was optimistic because the 3.4% rise in murder numbers nationally compared to the same quarter last year was the smallest (and the only single-digit) increase in the past four quarters. This would bring no comfort to the loved ones of the 6 289 victims. Murder numbers during the past quarter were 28.5% higher than January-March 2019, before COVID-19 lockdowns affected crime trends.
Between 1 April 2011 and 31 March 2022, murders increased by 62%, from an average of 42 to 69 a day. In the first three months of 2023, there was an average of 70 murders daily. Gauteng province – where Cele said ‘aggressive policing’ such as Operation O kae Molao was launched in 2019 – hasn’t performed much better, with murders up 31.4% from January-March 2019.
Cele recognises that most murders occurred over weekends and that 20% of this quarter’s murders were recorded at only 30 (less than 3%) of the country’s 1 162 police stations. The nature of violent crime differs from place to place, driven by multiple factors. Murders by organised crime groups require different interventions to those perpetrated during social disputes.
It should be possible to reduce murder substantially by enhancing the police’s ability to use its resources better. But between the 2011/12 and 2021/22 financial years, the SAPS’ ability to solve murders and hold perpetrators accountable in court declined by 55%. In 2022 only 14.5% of murder dockets were closed as detected. This means that in over 85% of murder cases, the perpetrators could walk free to continue committing violent crimes.
The police’s determination to increase visible policing appears misplaced when evidence suggests this approach alone doesn’t improve public safety. What is known to work is ensuring accountability for those who perpetrate crime.
The SAPS has paid R2.3 billion to victims of unlawful police conduct over the past five years
This requires a clear plan to substantially strengthen intelligence and detective capabilities. Close monitoring by police oversight structures must ensure a rise in rates of detection and cases sent to court for serious violence and organised crime. Without that, hiring more police and holding more roadblocks is an expensive and ineffectual response to a worsening crisis.
Visible policing can have positive outcomes if the aim is to build public trust and strengthen community relations with police. But police need to act professionally and treat everyone fairly. Strategies that promote ‘aggressive’ policing typically weaken the fragile ties between police and communities, which already prevail in South Africa.
The SAPS has paid R2.3 billion to victims of unlawful police conduct over the past five years. The R471 million paid out last year was 344% higher than in 2011/12, when the service adopted a more aggressive style of policing and reintroduced military ranks.
Policing needs to inspire public trust. People will then be more likely to share information, cooperate and comply with the police, and obey the law. Procedural justice offers a cost-effective and evidence-based means to improve community-police relations. It involves treating everyone fairly and with dignity, giving them a chance to speak and listening to them, clearly explaining who you are, what you are doing and why, and answering any questions.
The responsibility to reduce violence doesn’t rest solely with the police. As Cele correctly says, all of society must be involved. The effects of violence and trauma permeate our households, schools and communities. Children raised under these conditions are susceptible to poor health and social outcomes. Ensuring their wellbeing is vital for South Africa to grow effective, empathetic and accountable future leaders.
To overcome these challenges, we need to understand the impact of violence and adversity on South Africans through trauma-informed perspectives. Government’s recognition that improving public safety requires investments beyond the criminal justice system is encouraging. The country needs interventions that work deliberately and sustainably to remove sources of harm and inequality, with attention to healing past and present wounds.
Evidence indicates that this can be done. The Violence Prevention Forum shows positive change can occur through multisectoral collaboration built on a meaningful, empathetic dialogue process, trusting relationships and shared values.
One such success story is the funding and piloting of evidence-informed parenting and family-strengthening programmes. These programmes help reduce child maltreatment and improve the mental health of children and parents – a recipe that helps break cycles of violence. It shows how collective and coordinated implementation can work even in diverse settings.
All South Africans experience the impact of violence daily. The police can prevent the perpetration of the worst attacks in the short term through a more focused application of their resources. In the longer term, the country must pursue meaningful partnerships that use evidence-based interventions to reach inside households and communities.
Written by Lizette Lancaster, Jody van der Heyde, Thato Machabaphala and Gareth Newham, Justice and Violence Prevention, ISS Pretoria.