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Violence by any other name.

The rising crime rate in South Africa since the general elections six months ago is being blamed for scaring away investors and thus threatening the Reconstruction and Development programme. But as JM Lesage reports, could it be that what was previously deemed political violence was in fact criminal violence all along and that South Africa is no more lawless today than previously?

SOUTH African Police Commissioner, Johan van der Merwe, warned in August that the country could slip into a state of anarchy if crime is not combated effectively. His most recent report showed that more than 1.85 million crimes were committed in 1993, a 4% increase on the previous year. Murder increased by almost 9%, rape by 11% and serious assault by 6%.

Police figures for the first quarter of this year showed that more than 50 people were being murdered every day, almost two per hour. Rapes, robberies and burglaries also rocketed in the run-up to the elections, with more than 23,000 robberies reported in the first three months of this year. 7,855 rapes were reported during the same period.

More than 4,000 vehicles are being stolen each month, and in the Witwatersrand region alone some 1,200 robberies are committed monthly. Figures since April, although not yet officially available, show a further increase in crime.

Assessment difficult

The obvious question to ask is "why?" First of all, in the past the line between criminal violence and political violence was very thin, which makes the statistical assessment of current crime trends very difficult. Equally, the vacuum of authority during the pre-electoral negotiation phase provided space for criminals to operate.

The country is also at a stage where attempts are being made to transform and restructure the police service, something which will only yield positive results in the medium to long term. Due to its haphazard implementation it is slow in generating new forms of accepted social authority and policing institutions. This in turn allows criminal elements to operate with relative impunity.

Another reason for crime escalation is that South Africa is a society which had been at war with itself for many years, and any society engaged in a war generates its own war economy.

Certain groups have developed material interests in destabilisation as they buy and sell arms, are involved in protection rackets and even assassination. Criminal gangs have become actively involved in these areas.

But it is since April and the end of the violent liberation struggle that South Africa has experienced the real state of criminality within its society. A criminality which has always existed, but which can not now be confused with politics. This observation leads to the stark realisation that South Africa is already a society which has learnt to live with crime and criminal violence.

But although it could make combating crime even more difficult, it does not mean that crime should or can be left alone.

One of the first steps taken by the new South African Government has been an attempt at reducing the number of illegal arms circulating in the country. Weapons, such as the AK 47 which in the past were utilised to fight for freedom, have now become the criminals weapon of choice.

Attempts by the Government to have illegal firearms voluntarily surrendered have failed miserably. Tens of thousands of illegal weapons are known to circulate, but the government's latest efforts saw a mere 500 illegal weapons being surrendered to the police.

The Government is now being asked to show that the police are ready and willing to fight crime. In most cases the police have proven willing, but according to Jessie Duarte, a safety and security spokesperson, witness and evidence problems have resulted in a low conviction rate.

Duarte argues for a dual approach to combating crime: constant police anti-crime onslaughts coupled with programmes to create viable local economies so raising current low standards of living. She acknowledges that during the past six months of high profile raids, no major impact has been made on crime. There is also a suspicion that certain sections of the police do not have the will to fight crime as much as they ought.

Many demand that the police fight crime with the same ardour they showed in fighting political opposition in the past.

If this does not come about, it may become necessary for the government to bring radical restructuring measures to police command structures.
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Copyright 1994 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Title Annotation:violent crime in South Africa
Author:Lesage, J.M.
Publication:African Business
Article Type:Cover Story
Date:Dec 1, 1994
Previous Article:The economics of crime and punishment.
Next Article:The arms industry: profits of peace.

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