Crime hits some harder

2004-04-22 15:59
Johannesburg - Violent crime feeds paranoia and spotlights inequalities, with white fear at a high level after 10 years of democracy, but poor black communities the hardest hit.

The rich and even the moderately well off - blacks as well as whites - live behind burglar bars, with guard dogs, security gates and electric fences.

They lock their car doors while driving, and, in downtown Johannesburg at night, may legally disobey stop signs and red traffic lights if they fear hijacking.

The figures - 22 000 murders every year, plus another 35 000 attempted murders in a population of 45 million - scare citizens, tourists and investors.

But is there more violence now than before the first democratic elections in 1994?

Ted Leggett, a criminologist at the Pretoria-based Institute for Security Studies (ISS), argues that it is the reporting of crimes that has increased, rather than the crimes themselves.

"Prior to 1994 the majority of South Africans wouldn't have reported anything to the police. They weren't co-operating with the police because being seen doing so could have got you killed back in those days in certain communities," he said.

Since then, he said, "police started to win the confidence of the public", and reports of crime - notably domestic violence, assault and rapes - increased massively.

Sealing off the streets

In apartheid days, pass laws and curfews kept most blacks out of white areas at night.

Now, multiracial communities in affluent neighbourhoods are drawing the ire of authorities by sealing off their streets with booms manned by private security guards, halting the through-flow of traffic.

More than 500 residential associations last year asked the city of Johannesburg for permission to cordon off their neighbourhoods, each containing 15 000 to 20 000 people.

Many went ahead unilaterally, prompting the council to demolish the barriers and refuse permission for them to be re-established.

The Medical Research Council reported that in 2001, blacks - about eight times more numerous than whites - were 17 times more victims of murder. More whites committed suicide (676) than were murdered (465).

"There is a lot of confusion about where and why the crime is the way it is, and certainly people have a generalised paranoia when in fact the risk is very specific to particular areas," said Leggett.

In Johannesburg, ISS research in 1999 showed people were 33 times more likely to be murdered in derelict Hillbrow (364 murders per 100 000 people) than in affluent Parkview (16). In Cape Town, reported rapes totalled 502 per 100 000 inhabitants in Guguletu township, compared to 49 in posh Claremont.

In the rural areas, meanwhile, little has changed, with police few and far between and often ill-equipped, where a mob is likely to kill a man caught committing a burglary, sometimes by burning him alive.

Changing the face of the police

For the first black president, Nelson Mandela, and his successor, Thabo Mbeki, the challenge was to integrate the police racially, get rid of illiteracy in the force (one in every four policemen was illiterate in 1999), and transform the service's focus from riot control and counter-terrorism to public service - schools "adopt" their own policeman or policewoman - and community policing.

The police now tend to wage public relations battles with massive swoops on high-crime areas, nabbing hundreds of suspects and overfilling jails and police holding cells.

In run-down central Johannesburg, which the mayor and council are making a major effort to turn around, monitors staff a control-room that would not be out of place in a Star Trek movie.

Perched in a skyscraper abandoned in 1999, they watch screens linked to more than 200 video cameras monitoring 30km² of streets, squares and parks.

"Three or four years ago, Johannesburg central business district (CBD) used to be referred to as the most dangerous place in Africa," said Neville Huxham, public relations director for the project.

Now, "it has become the safest place in Africa," he claims, maintaining that crime there has dropped 70% in three years.

"It has a ripple effect. The value of assets and infrastructure in the city centre was about R25bn. It is now being valued at R50bn."

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