Statistical quibbles

2007-12-08 00:00

Even as the battlelines in the ANC’s leadership contest take shape, Thabo Mbeki’s stance on crucial issues remains curiously disengaged from realities on the ground. The Eminent Persons’ assessment of South Africa for the African Peer Review Mechanism has been belatedly and unceremoniously released, and together with it the APRM report on related discussions. These include the president’s objection to the suggestion that the level of violent crime in this country is unacceptably high. Mbeki’s argument focuses particularly on technical flaws in the statistical methodology employed by the APRM analysts but, valid though his critique may be, the ordinary South African will still feel that the APRM findings are uncomfortably close to the truth.

South Africa’s own crime statistics, the latest set of which were released by the Department of Safety and Security during the week, do signal a small improvement. Year-on-year figures for the period April to September show a nationwide decline in the rates of the most violent crimes — murder, rape, attempted murder and assault with intent to do grievous bodily harm. In KwaZulu-Natal, for example, the number of murders fell by 9,9%, and no doubt the commendable speed with which the perpetrators of some of the high profile murders in this province have been identified and prosecuted is a contributing factor. When the initial crime rate is excessively high, however, a decline of a few percentage points is hardly a cause for celebration: too many people are still being killed or traumatised by violent criminals.

There are, moreover, some very disturbing new trends. Despite all warnings, the incidence of driving under the influence of drink or drugs has increased by an alarming 38% in this province. The rates of several forms of theft and burglary have dropped, but those of robbery have increased. With more effective security systems in place, it seems that criminals have shifted from stealing unattended property to confronting their victims — often soft targets — directly. In KwaZulu-Natal vehicle theft is down, but carjacking is up 8,6%, truck hijacking by 46,2%, home robbery by 32,5% and business robbery by a massive 71%.

Of all of these, the increase in home robbery is surely the most disturbing. The family home lies at the heart of a stable society. When its sanctity is so readily invaded, and when people are made fearful even in their own homes, the situation becomes profoundly troubling. It is this which Thabo Mbeki seems incapable of grasping. Statistics fluctuate and can be manipulated, but the reality is that a disempowering sense of insecurity pervades all South Africa. It circumscribes and truncates life. At work, at play, on the roads and even at home, people dare not ever let their defences down. They look for a leader who will take their anxiety seriously, confront reality, and do something about it. Mbeki quibbles about statistical methodologies.

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