Fighting crime

2008-12-05 00:00

Speaking at a recent seminar convened by the Institute for Security Studies (ISS), senior researcher Johan Burger said that he is “"adamant” that the government’s National Crime Prevention Strategy has failed. This may seem like stating the obvious to ordinary South Africans, beleaguered by unacceptably high rates of crime despite the deployment of thousands of extra police officers. However, the institute’s study gives a nuanced view of the situation, which might well form the basis for significant advances in the war on crime.

The study notes that much of the crime in South Africa has a socio-economic origin. It therefore makes little sense to have a national strategy on crime prevention without making it part of a broader strategy aimed at addressing crime’s root causes such as poverty, unemployment and the lack of adequate social services.

A related point, raised by the study, is that violent crimes such as murder and assault are overwhelmingly committed in the private domain, and are therefore outside the normal operating environment of the police. This reinforces the importance of addressing the country’s social ills.

While the police and the courts cannot be held solely accountable for winning the war on crime, there are many instances where sloppy police work, corrupt police officers and a slow and frequently incompetent justice system exacerbate the situation. Afri-Forum, which commissioned the ISS study, has suggested that the report provides the basis for taking the government to court for failing to provide citizens with adequate protection against crime. There have certainly been precedents for this in decisions against the transport department, in which individuals who have suffered loss or injury as a result of inadequately maintained roads have received compensation. However, if the police and justice system are to be held accountable in this way — as well they should — the redress needs to be available to all, not just to those who have the resources to afford good legal representation.

Another important point brought up by the study was the vacuum in policing caused by the scrapping of the commando system. It is understandable that, in the immediate post-1994 years, the dangers posed by armed white landowners fomenting a right-wing backlash must have resonated strongly with the African National Congress government of the day. However, these dangers have now dissipated and the authorities need to consider instituting some broad-based replacement for the commando system as a matter of urgency.

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