Drop in violent crime more about ban on alcohol than movement restrictions

Cape Town Letter: However an upswing in gender-based violence in households has been reported

According to South Africa’s Institute for Security Studies researchers, policing lockdown restrictions is now a major challenge. Photograph: Kim Ludbrook/EPA

The five-week nationwide lockdown imposed in South Africa to slow the spread of coronavirus has revealed some valuable insights into violent crime, public safety and policing in one of the world's most dangerous nations.

On April 6th, nine days into the mass confinement, police minister Bheki Cele gave the public its first look at the lockdown's impact with details of an analysis that compared violent crimes committed in its first week to the same period in 2019.

The data showed that murder cases had dropped from 326 to 94; rape cases from 699 to 101; cases of assault with intention to inflict grievous bodily harm fell from 2,673 to 456; while “trio” crimes – which refers to vehicle hijacking and robbery – plummeted from 8,853 to 2,098.

For a country with the fifth-highest murder rate in the world last year, according to the United Nations, the impact of restricting people's movement on public safety appears astonishing at face value.


But Cele maintained it was the decision to prohibit the sale and movement of liquor that was the primary reason for the dramatic fall in violent crime, rather than restrictions on people’s movement.

“My first prize would be that we shut down alcohol [for good] ,” he said when addressing reporters during his press conference on the analysis. “I wish [the] alcohol ban could be extended beyond lockdown.”

First seven days

Cele added, however, that there had been an upswing in gender-based violence (GBV) in the household during the first seven days of lockdown, with police receiving 2,320 complaints over the period.

This was 37 per cent higher than the weekly average for the 87,290 GBV cases reported to the authorities for 2019, according to South Africa’s Institute for Security Studies (ISS).

Since apartheid ended in 1994 violent crime has plagued South Africa, and the authorities have struggled to sustain any progress they have made over the past 26 years. For the year leading up to April 2019 there were a staggering 21,020 murders, 41,583 rapes and 162,012 common assaults reported to the police.

So the hope is that government will use some of the lessons learned under the lockdown, which is currently set to run out on April 30th, to develop future policing strategies for the country’s many crime hotspots.

One of the more unexpected developments of the lockdown has been its effect on rival gang members in Cape Town’s notorious Cape Flats suburb, which has the country’s highest murder rate.

From May 2018 to April 2019 there were nearly 4,000 murders in the Western Cape, according to police statistics. In addition, a report on urban safety released last year by the South African Cities Network showed Cape Town and its surrounding suburbs with a murder rate of 69 people per 100,000 – twice the national average.

Many of these murders can be attributed to endless turf wars between the area’s “super gangs”, which have names like The Americans, The Hard Livings and The Clever Kids.

Gangster ceasefire

But according to media reports and volunteers working in the area, the gangsters have called a ceasefire to allow for the safe delivery of food and sanitation supplies to households whose bread winners can no longer work because of the lockdown.

Pastor Andie Steele-Smith, who delivers essential supplies to Cape Flats communities, said while gang members’ instincts are “to kill each other”, coronavirus had given them a reason to see past their historical grievances.

“Look, we don’t know how long this [truce] will hold, but for now the different gangs are working together to distribute the supplies to their communities what we bring in, and that co-operation is unprecedented,” he told The Irish Times.

According to ISS researchers, events since the lockdown have also confirmed the fact that policing the restrictions is one of the country’s major new challenges .

The Independent Police Investigative Directorate, which is mandated to investigate criminal complaints against South Africa’s police services, had reportedly registered six cases of “death as a result of police action” during the first week of the lockdown, which ended on April 3rd.

In comparison, the department of health said that for the same period the death toll from Covid-19 was seven – which made the police only slightly less deadly for South Africans to encounter than the virus during that time.