SOUTH AFRICA is the world's crime capital, the citizens of this fractured, violent society will tell you with a sort of macabre pride.
Everyone, black or white, can recount tales of acquaintances shot dead by burglars, cars seized at gunpoint, or friends stabbed by muggers for not handing over their wallets quickly enough.
With sufficient guns around to arm much of the 40 million population, a 50 percent unemployment rate, and a society twisted by the brutal legacy of apartheid, crime has a particular malicious bent in cities like Johannesburg.
The common wisdom is that violent crime has worsened since the first democratic elections 18 months ago. Indeed, spiraling crime was the sole uniting issue in this month's local elections.
But is this a true picture? Experts are not so sure.
What feeds the mass paranoia is the random nature of South Africa's crime. Lives of both blacks and whites are geared around security. Many suburban whites live in jail-like homes guarded by vicious dogs, razor wire, and armed security guards summoned by panic buttons. People doing gardening carry mobile panic buttons.
The black poor, their trust in police eroded by apartheid, sometimes take justice into their own hands, beating to death suspected murderers in vacant lots.
True, the South African police, who complain their 121,868-member force is not sufficient, report a rise in serious crimes. In the first six months of this year, there were 948,064 serious crimes - 5 percent more than in the same period in 1994. Rape, robbery, assault, break-ins, theft, and car hijacking were all at levels national police spokesman Reg Crewe termed "unacceptably high."
A comparison of international figures by the Nedcor Project on Crime and Investment here shows that South Africa is one of the world's most murderous societies. The study, sponsored by the Nedcor banking group, calculated that there were 45 murders per 100,000 people - well above the international average of 5.5 per 100,000 and 9 per 100,000 in the US.
For 72 countries, murder and assault made up some 3 percent of all reported crime. In South Africa the figure was 16 percent. "South Africa ... seems to have pathologically high rates of violent crime," the project concluded.
It's more complicated than that, says Graeme Simpson of the Centre for the Study of Violence and Reconciliation at Johannesburg's Witwatersrand University, which has studied South African turmoil over the years.
While conceding that there is a culture of violence and inadequate policing, Mr. Simpson says rising crime statistics may be because of more effective reporting by blacks. With a new black-led government, there is now more trust in police.
The figures may also reflect a re-labeling of political violence, which killed some 14,000 people over the past decade and suddenly stopped in most parts of South Africa after the elections. Perhaps some of the victims of the transition to democracy were actually murdered by common criminals, Simpson says. "Statistics are hard to rely on a straight quantitative analysis," he says. "They should be subjected to some scrutiny; maybe our mechanisms for gathering information have been flawed."
Joe Matthews, deputy minister of safety and security, blames media hype and opposition politicking for the perception of soaring crime. He says there were 33 fewer car hijackings between January and September this year than in the same 1994 period in Gauteng, the most crime-ridden province, which includes Johannesburg.
RATHER than debate statistics, Mr. Matthews wants solutions. Government ministries, which once concentrated on repressing the 5-to-1 black majority, are now getting down to law and order. Top politicians and businessmen have pledged to work together to find solutions to the crime so that newly resumed foreign investment and tourism won't be scared off. International police experts have been called in for advice.
Policymakers agree there must be new faith in police, more jobs so people won't rob, and more officers in the most violent black areas.
But crime may have to go up before coming down. "In societies which have been at war with themselves, with scarce resources, the injection of resources into a community will escalate crime," Simpson says.
Besides, "if we have high levels of confidence in policing, we would have better reporting of crime. Then statistics would go up," he says.