Crime Watch

Lies, damn lies and crime statistics


Crime statistics in South Africa, the latest tranche of which was released last week, have become a political and intellectual battlefield with the whole truth often the greatest victim.

The release last week of the latest set of annual crime statistics in parliament has led to a very confusing barrage of claims about the messages it is supposed to convey, the trends it reveals and the measures called for to attain improved figures in future.

When looking at many of these ‘truths’ about the crime statistics being put forward individually, one mostly discovers that a particular bias or pet theory informs or drives that particular formulation.

For one, there is some perspective to be gained from a quote out of famous author Mark Twain’s autobiography: “Figures often beguile me, particularly when I have the arranging of them myself (our emphasis); in which case the remark attributed to Disraeli would often apply with justice and force: There are three kinds of lies: lies, damned lies and statistics.”

Often those who want to promote, and more often than not for political point-scoring reasons, the now almost common ‘truth’ that South Africa is the ‘murder capital’ of the word, claim that the murder rate is climbing.

On closer scrutiny it, however, it becomes clear that there are more than one simplification hidden in such claims. Consider the facts that:

  • While South Africa’s murder rate at 33 per 100 000 people is well above the global average of 6 per 100 000, in Venezuela it is 90, Belize 45 and 41 in El Salvador per 100 000; and
  • In the early 1990s, coinciding with an improvement in the quality of available statistics, the murder rate peaked at 78 per 100 000 (1993).

Since 1994 there has been a steady decline in this rate until 2012 to 28.5 per 100 000 people. Since then there has been an upward trend again from year to year.

However, to validate the solidness of some of the available sources of these statistics is an almost impossible task. Both the size and the composition of the population included in the collection of data have changed over the same period, due to the inclusion of the former so-called tribal homelands.

But one has to caution immediately against simplistic, or racial bias-driven, conclusions from this fact. For one, this period also coincided with increased momentum in urbanisation, which might have influenced both the quality of data collection and socio-economic or socio-political factors driving crime rates.

The early 1990s was, for instance, also the time of conflict between the ANC and its supporting organisations and the Inkatha Freedom Party and its supporting organisations. Although the conflict was mainly centred in KwaZulu-Natal, it also spilled over to other areas of the country.

In my own constituency of Springs on the East Rand, it took some effort from role players across various dividing lines to contain the at the times violent clashes between especially residents of the hostel in the KwaThema township and the civic organisation of the township itself. Despite these efforts some people still lost their lives

Driving factors behind crime

If the battle to fight crime with effective policies and interventions is to be won, it is al- important that the factors driving crime are identified as accurately as possible – to identify what are true links between crime and factors like the state of the economy, the rate of (un)employment, living conditions, illegal immigrants, demographic spread in terms of age, the quality of education and many more.

In the early 1970s I, then a crime reporter on a daily newspaper, wrote an article about a British report on the link between elderly people as victims of crime and recessionary economic conditions. The premise was an increase in the number elderly as soft targets during a time of economic downturn.

The subject of a possible link between crime rates and the state of the economy was revisited extensively last week. Not much domestic research on the subject could be found, but a report by the United States’ Heritage Foundation, published in late 2000 pretty much sums up the international trends: “But there's little evidence to suggest that good economic times have much effect on crime. Crime rates rose every year between 1955 and 1972, even as the U.S. economy surged, with only a brief, mild recession in the early 1960s.

“By the time criminals took a breather in the early 1970s, crime rates had increased over 140%. Murder rates had risen about 70 percent, rapes more than doubled, and auto theft nearly tripled.

“By the same token, a bad economy doesn't always bring more crime. Crime rates fell about one third between 1934 and 1938 while the nation was struggling to emerge from the Great Depression and weathering another severe economic downturn in 1937 and 1938. Surely, if the economic theory held, crime should have been soaring.”

And a 2010 report by the New Republic states: “In December 2008, just a few months after the U.S. financial system imploded, New York City was hit by a flurry of bank robberies.

“Criminologists wondered if the holiday spree was the first sign of a looming crime wave in recession-battered America. Take an uptick in poverty and economic misery, toss in budget cuts to police departments across the country, and that should be a blueprint for chaos—right?

“Except, as it turns out, the exact opposite occurred. According to FBI statistics, crime rates went down across the board in 2009. Way down. Murder, rape, robbery, assault, auto theft—plummeted, one and all.”

This report then poses the question: “What gives? Have experts just completely misunderstood what causes people to commit crimes?”

What emerges is a complicated picture, best summarised by one expert that said that: “…subtle changes in our social and economic environments can actually have big effects on crime rates.

“If, say, GM suddenly invents a better lock for its cars, auto theft goes down. If a city enforces existing liquor laws at its five worst bars (so that they’re not serving alcohol to people who are already intoxicated, for instance), violence drops.

“If people start trimming their hedges and watching out for their neighbours, burglaries dwindle. And the would-be criminals don’t just go elsewhere for looting or pillaging—they give up, and the overall crime rate drops.”

“These ideas aren’t classically conservative (“lock ‘em all up!”) or liberal (“rehabilitate ‘em and address root causes”). But they’re finding favour among a younger class of criminologists—and some of the behavioural shifts triggered by this recession could provide a testing ground for such theories.”


Maybe the time has come for a proper crime intelligence agency in South Africa, which does a lot more than just use informers to collect information on criminals and their activities.

An agency that has the capacity to holistically study and interpret the crime trends and the factors driving it to inform policy formulation and planning of interventions that can effectively make a contribution towards creating a safer, less corrupt country for the South African society at large is needed.

by Piet Coetzer

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