South African President Cyril Ramaphosa used his State of the Nation Address on February 7 to outline his relatively new government’s actions and plans.
Ramaphosa focused particularly on economic growth, investment and job creation. He also announced substantial investments in education, health and housing. But there was very limited focus on crime. Prevention strategies he outlined were somewhat stale. Most, especially those related to policing and gender-based violence, has been tried before. They yielded few positive results and there is no evidence to suggest that they’ll work any better now.
This, in a country whose levels of violent crime are extremely high. Gender-based violence such as assault and rape and violence against children is common. And there are very real problems with how South Africa’s police operate.
Ramaphosa’s robust plans for the economy have the potential for reducing violent crime in the future. But, importantly, existing levels of violent crime can severely undermine his government’s efforts to stimulate growth, increase investment and reduce poverty. There’s an urgent need for government to honestly reflect on its current approaches to crime prevention, and to adopt strategies that are based on evidence.
Many of the determinants of violent crime in South Africa are beyond the police’s control. Crime and violence are shaped by a variety and combination of societal factors. These include inequality, societal norms that condone the use of violence, and alcohol and drug abuse. Despite this reality, the heavy lifting of crime control has fallen squarely on the shoulders of the South African Police Service (SAPS).
SAPS has developed various community policing approaches since the mid-1990s. These have been designed to try and work with communities to address crime’s societal drivers.
These strategies have included the creation of community policing forums. Another strategy was the implementation of “sector policing” – an approach that divides policing precincts into smaller parts, which would be actively patrolled by the same police personnel to improve police-community relations.
Unfortunately, there’s little evidence to show that these approaches have done much to bring down crime rates. Why? Because communities, especially those where crime is high, don’t trust the police much. Another problem is that most community policing strategies are imposed on residents by SAPS without proper buy-in. Only certain groups, such as neighbourhood watches, are actively encouraged to participate. Other community-based organisations and NGOs are often excluded.
In his speech, Ramaphosa introduced a “new” SAPS Community Policing Strategy. In fact, it appears to be a “business as usual” approach. Without important changes, it’s unlikely that this strategy will be any more effective than previous efforts.
Building equal and mutually beneficial partnerships between police and communities is an effective way to fight crime. Sadly, those areas in South Africa which take this approach do so in an ad hoc way, driven almost entirely by individual police officers taking the initiative without instruction from their superiors.
A recent judgment by the Equality Court found the allocation of police resources in the Western Cape was skewed in favour of wealthier areas with lower crime rates. It’s highly likely that discriminatory allocations of police resources occur in other provinces. This state of affairs has reinforced established patterns of poverty, inequality and violent crime.
Ramaphosa indicated in his speech that more resources would be made available for policing, but he was silent about where these would be allocated. This may help to improve community-police relations, but only if priority is given to those crime affected areas that need it the most.
For more than 20 years, the government has been aware of the complexity of interpersonal violence – a point Ramaphosa reiterated in his speech. Various crime prevention strategies and plans have been developed to address both violent crime in general as well as gender-based violence. Examples include The National Crime Prevention Strategy (1996), the Integrated Social Crime Prevention Strategy (2011), and the Integrated Programme of Action Addressing Violence Against Women and Children (2014).
Available evidence suggests these strategies have not resulted in significant crime prevention. The reason is that these documents have tended to be overly ambitious. They envisioned an integrated, multi-sectoral response without an appreciation of the complexities involved in getting the relevant government departments and agencies to collaborate in implementing the strategies.
Even in well-resourced countries with relatively low crime rates, such as Australia, Belgium and New Zealand, integrated crime prevention approaches have failed to adequately translate into action. In Australia, for example, a study concluded that an integrated crime prevention effort failed because of
a lack of clear and coherent central leadership…, an emphasis on short-term goals and outcomes…, low levels of funding, and repeated radical changes in direction.
It appears that the latest document which president Ramaphosa mentioned in his speech, the National Strategic Plan on Gender-based Violence, will follow a similar approach to previous plans. If it’s to be effective, such a plan should rather prioritise a small number of key areas where there is a high probability of achieving positive results across society.
For example, there is increasing scholarly consensus that childhood experiences of violence are among the greatest risk factors for such victims engaging in and perpetuating gender-based violence in future. Hence, child protection could be a particularly strategic focus area for such a plan.
President Ramaphosa’s State of the Nation Address underscored that “building a better South Africa” requires collective action from all citizens. Indeed, this is imperative in preventing crime. But the government needs to ensure that effective structures and mechanisms are in place to allow for such collective involvement.