Briefing: How violent is South Africa?

The prosecution say Oscar Pistorius murdered his girlfriend. He says he shot her in mistaken self-defense, taking her for a burglar. Whatever the truth, the case has put a spotlight on crime in South Africa.

Olympic athlete, Oscar Pistorius, in court Friday in Pretoria, South Africa, for his bail hearing charged with the shooting death of his girlfriend, Reeva Steenkamp.

Early in the morning of Feb. 14, police arrived at the home of South African sprinter Oscar Pistorius to find the double-amputee runner with the body of his girlfriend, Reeva Steenkamp, who he claimed to have shot to death accidentally while she was on the toilet, having taken her for an intruder.

The details of the case quickly drew rapt international attention, but they also put renewed focus on South Africa’s longstanding reputation as a hub of violent crime. Indeed, nearly two decades after the country’s transition from authoritarian white rule to full democracy, South Africa retains rates of murder, rape, and aggravated burglary that are among the highest in the world.

And Ms. Steenkamp’s death came as the country was still reeling from the highly publicized murder of another woman, 17-year-old Anene Booysens, who was discovered gang raped and disemboweled in a working class town two hours from Cape Town on Feb. 2.

But crime in South Africa has also dropped over the past decade, and a cadre of Latin American nations now regularly outpaces the country in many global crime rankings. So in the era of Oscar Pistorius, does the ‘rainbow nation’ still deserve its reputation as one of the most violent countries in the world? 

Here are the basics on crime in South Africa. 

How does the rate of violent crime in South Africa compare to other countries?

Global crime statistics are notoriously uneven and difficult to compare, given the widely varying quality of policing and record keeping around the world. However, according to the United Nations, South Africa’s current murder rate is lower than that of at least ten other countries, including Honduras, El Salvador, and Guatemala, as well as African nations including Lesotho, Uganda, and Cote d’Ivoire.

“Crime is high [in South Africa] but the reputation for crime is much higher,” says Matthew McKeever, an associate professor of sociology at Mount Holyoke College in South Hadley, Ma. who studies social inequality in southern Africa. “People think of it as much more violent than it really is.”

That widespread belief is in part a legacy of the country’s bumpy transition to democracy, which saw an explosion in violence across the country in the late 1980s and early 1990s. South Africa’s murder rate in 1995, the year after Nelson Mandela assumed the presidency, was 64.9 per 100,000 – nearly twice its current figure and thirteen times the present rate in the United States.

There remains at least one category of violent crime, however, where South Africa is still a global frontrunner: rape. There were 64,000 reported cases of rape last year, which experts say is likely a fraction of the true total. In one 2010 government survey, one in three South African men questioned admitted to raping at least one woman in his lifetime and one in four women said she had been the victim of a rape.

What’s the reason for all this crime?

South Africa is rich – both in mineral resources and in infrastructure. It’s home to multinational corporations, several billionaires, and the only university in Africa to rank in the top 200 globally. But those resources have long been concentrated in the hands of the country’s white minority, which has always made up less than 20 percent of the population. Since the end of apartheid, the skin color of that elite has gradually darkened, but the gulf between the country’s rich and poor continues to widen.  

In fact, South Africa now has the second widest gap between its rich and its poor in the world, according to the CIA World Factbook. And those who live among the world’s economic elite and those who survive on a few dollars a day don’t inhabit distinct worlds. They live and work in the same towns, cities, and companies. The distance from Johannesburg’s Sandton suburb –the richest square kilometer in Africa– to a slum without running water is all of three miles. 

The rising income gap, coupled with an official unemployment rate of 25 percent, have helped give rise to a highly-organized criminal element across the country. But many say that the economic explanation doesn’t tell the full story.

For the rest of the answer, says Jean Comaroff, a South African anthropologist based at Harvard, you have to go deep into the country’s history. Violence, after all, was part and parcel of centuries of white domination – and despite the country’s relatively peaceful transition, violence was also crucial to overthrowing apartheid.  

“Despite the ideal of a new rainbow nation, it remains a society deeply divided, where … general insecurity and fear manifest themselves in an obsession with crime, especially among those relatively well-off, and no longer in control of the state,” Dr. Comaroff says.

Are things getting any better?

That depends who you ask. Those with means in South Africa can now do a great deal to buy their safety. The crime wave of the 1980s and ‘90s gave rise to a kind of security industrial complex in the country – creating a voracious demand for the high tech alarms, security systems, and electrified fences that are now second nature to wealthy South Africans of all colors.

As of 2011, there were more than 400,000 private security guards in South Africa, compared with just over 200,000 police officers, and one in 14 newly created jobs in the country is for a security guard. It is telling that when Pistorius made his first call for help on the morning Steenkamp died, it was not to the police, but to the security guards in his housing complex. 

What’s more, to many South Africans of similar means, the idea that Pistorius could have shot blindly at someone he thought to be an intruder is not particularly far-fetched. In fact, in 2004 professional rugby player Rudi Visagie was cleared of charges after accidentally killing his 19-year old daughter when he mistook her for a car thief in his garage.

Overall, ‘contact crime,’ including murder, attempted murder, sexual offenses, assault, and robbery, is down 35 percent since 2004-05, according to the South African Police. But the rate of certain crimes, including sexual offenses, has shown little change, and still others, including business robberies, are on the rise.

As in most countries, the bulk of violent crimes are committed by and against individuals who know one another. In 2011-12, 65 percent of murders began as assaults resulting from interpersonal disagreements, according to South African Police Minister Nathi Mthethwa.

That makes a variety of explanations for Pistorius’ actions seem reasonable to many South Africans, McKeever says.

“On the one hand it’s believable to people that he would have been afraid and thinking he was being robbed,” he says. “On the other hand this is a country with a great deal of domestic violence. I think people in South Africa could easily believe both sides of the story.”

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