Crime: A war we can’t win

2013-09-23 10:00

70?000 new police. 40?000 social workers short. How many baddies?

Politicians believe that most people like to hear them say that “we are at war with crime”. They believe it suggests they are taking crime seriously.

However, for as long as public discussion and the pronouncements of politicians about crime and violence remain trapped in the language of war, we set ourselves up for continued high levels of violence in South Africa.

In July this year, Constable Gugulethu Ximba was gunned down outside her house in Umlazi, KwaZulu-Natal, as she was returning home from work.

Her police firearm was stolen by her attacker, who fled while firing shots at her distraught father and brother. She was the sixth junior police officer to have been killed since the beginning of the year.

Less than a week after Ximba was murdered, Constable Dumile Thethani was shot and killed in Nyanga in the Western Cape. His colleague was injured in the shooting.

At around the same time, 14-year-old Karabo Lesenyeka was allegedly tortured by police who were trying to extract a confession for something the boy claims to have no knowledge of. Lesenyeka is only one of many cases of police torture and abuse.

In 2011/12 alone, the Independent Police Investigative Directorate recorded 80 cases of torture and 720 deaths as a result of police action, or while in police custody.

And so the casualties mount in the “war on crime”.

With a daily average of 43 murders, South Africa’s murder rate is currently four and a half times above the international average.

This means that more people are murdered each year in South Africa than die in some war zones. For example, in the six years between 2007 and 2012, just over 16?000 (16?179) civilians died in Afghanistan, which works out to nine murders per day on average.

A Google search for “war on crime” in South Africa yields more than 52 million results. We are so convinced that we are in a war, and need to respond with more warriors, that we have been turning our police into soldiers for over a decade, finally announcing this reality by reintroducing military ranks. We have also added 68?769 men and women to the police service over the past 10 years.

But we have had enough experience of war to know that this social experiment cannot succeed. Waging war will not reduce the number of casualties.

It can’t succeed because by waging “war”, and retaining the language and symbols of aggression, we set ourselves up to remain at war with ourselves.

Criminals are not clearly defined enemies who exist outside of our communities. They include our sons, daughters, fathers, cousins, neighbours, businessmen, journalists, doctors, lawyers, police officers and politicians. If we think of ourselves as being at war with crime, we commit ourselves to the belief that the only way to win is by being more violent than those who we imagine threaten us.

Police Minister Nathi Mthethwa was deeply mistaken when, in response to the death of Constable Thethani, he said: “The war on crime is a people’s war and as history has indicated, the people become victorious in the end.”

There can be no victor in such a war. Instead, we will face increasing casualties as violence escalates.

We usually imagine this war as a battle between us good people, the law-abiding citizens, and the criminals who threaten us. Yet an analysis of murder cases over the years has shown that in more than 80% of murder cases, the victims and perpetrators know each other.

We have seen that throwing more police at the problem will not help. The police, courts and prisons only step in once a murder has been committed.

There is very little the police can do to prevent murders and assaults – especially when they take place in our homes and neighbourhoods.

Retaining our war talk is a terrible trap with severe consequences for development. During war, survival is paramount. Trapped in a struggle to survive, it is difficult to think about the future, plan for tomorrow and have hope.

Since most of the victims and perpetrators of violence and crime are marginalised young men, most of whom live from moment to moment and day to day, their capacity to change their circumstances is severely constrained.

International evidence points to the fact that targeting them for aggressive policing increases the risk of violence.

Rather than further alienating young men through brutal policing, we need to include them in a society that prioritises dignity and self-worth.

We have a chance to change this if we start to see crime and violence as a social problem, which all citizens are involved in solving.

And if we shift our resources and focus from the front line of policing to targeted prevention, we will save both lives and money.

Here are three interventions that research has shown to work in reducing violence and that do not involve the police:

»?Raise alcohol taxes. There is compelling international evidence that increasing the tax on alcohol reduces homicide, rape and assault;

»?Support parents and children. Studies of parenting-support programmes, and programmes for teachers, parents and children, have been shown to reduce aggression, violence and arrest rates of troubled children. A large body of evidence tells us that babies who develop close loving relationships with their mothers are more likely to develop into healthy adults; and

» Offer therapy to young people who commit crime. Intensive therapy programmes for young offenders have been shown to reduce arrest rates among those who receive the treatment.

These are only three of the many positive interventions that have been proven to reduce violence and crime in the long term. Yet the investment by the government in programmes such as these is tiny when compared with the national expenditure on criminal justice and the “war on crime”.

For example, while we have hired close to 70 000 police officers in the past decade, we have a shortage of more than ­40 000 social workers.

Shifting our thinking about the problem and how we spend public money is essential if we want our children’s children to grow up free from the fear that characterises the lives of many South Africans today.

The alternative is to live with the tragic consequences of pitting the police against civilians in an interminable war that simply can’t be won.

»?Dr Gould is a senior research fellow in the governance, crime and justice division at the Institute for Security Studies

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