By Felicity Duncan
Murder, like all crime, is an emotional topic, particularly for people who have personally been affected by it. But it is also an area where emotional reactions can be dangerous. We often allow our personal experiences and human biases to influence how we think about crime. Specifically, we often think that crime is more prevalent and serious than it actually is. This makes us afraid and unhappy and affects how we live, work, and invest.
Many South Africans (myself included) are guilty of irrational thinking where crime is concerned. Consider, for example, a recent headline proclaiming “Over 500,000 people have been murdered in South Africa since 1994.”
It’s a powerful, emotional, and – as far as it goes – accurate headline. Naturally, it is horrible that so many have died so needlessly. Every single one of those deaths is an avoidable tragedy.
But the headline is also misleading in many ways. For a start, it suggests that murder rates have blown through the roof since 1994. But that’s not true. In fact, as the UN homicide report that the article is based on points out, “There was a sharp downward trend in the homicide rate after [South Africa] abolished the apartheid system in the early 1990s. The country’s transition to a multiparty democracy was accompanied by a continuous decline in the homicide rate for many years.”
To me, the news article above seems – with its scary headline – to be trying to capitalise on some South Africans’ interest in the narrative that the country has gone to the dogs since apartheid ended. But that narrative, besides being racist, is just plain wrong.
This chart below is taken from the UN report on homicides that formed the basis for the article cited above.
As you can see, murder rates peaked in the 1980s and early 1990s, a time of immense political upheaval in South Africa and, importantly, a period in which guns were pouring into the country. Once SA became a democratic nation, the murder rate began to decline. It has picked up again since 2011, but it is still far lower than it was before 1994. Objectively speaking, South Africans are at a far lower risk of homicide today than they were 20 years ago.
Note that this is not to say that SA’s murder rate of around 36 per 100,000 is not unacceptably high. After all, Australia has a homicide rate of less than 1 per 100,000 and the global average is 6.1 per 100,000. Murder rates in SA are high.
However, South Africa’s homicide rate is much lower than those of Honduras (41.7), El Salvador (61.8), Jamaica (57) and other Central American countries. It’s comparable to Brazil’s rate of around 31 and Mexico’s 25. It’s high, but it’s also not the highest in the world, it’s broadly in line with rates in similar countries, and it’s lower than it used to be.
The idea that there has been an explosion of murder since the end of apartheid is also belied by the rest of the UN analysis, which goes into some depth on homicide in SA. Says the report, “At 36 per 100,000 population in 2017, South Africa has a high rate of homicide by global standards. Contrary to popular perception, however, analysis of long-term recorded rates of lethal violence shows that this is by no means a post-apartheid phenomenon. The country’s official homicide rate has been well above the current global average since at least the 1920s.” (emphasis added)
In other words, SA has been a murderous place for at least 100 years. This is hardly a post-apartheid phenomenon. Rather, SA’s persistently high homicide rate has its roots in the country’s former history – not the transition to democracy (which, again, actually reduced the homicide rate).
Starting in the 1940s, SA’s homicide rate increased in line with urbanisation, industrialisation, and segregation. As traditional living arrangements and communities were destroyed, homicides increased – the same pattern has been observed worldwide. Things were made worse in SA by apartheid, which relocated people, hastening the destruction of communities and families, and generated significant amounts of political violence that led to many deaths. Note how the homicide rate increases more or less steadily from 1944 (the start of apartheid) to 1993 (the end of it).
The homicide problem in SA was further exacerbated by the easy availability of guns. The UN report indicates that more than half of all global murders involve firearms. This is because it is very easy to kill someone with a gun. It requires little physical effort, is very quick, and is effective – it’s rarer to survive a gunshot than it is to survive, say, a stabbing.
SA has a pretty serious problem with the circulation of unlicensed firearms. Guns flooded the country during the apartheid struggle in the 1980s, leading to a surge in gun murders. An amnesty led to a reduction in the number of guns in circulation post-1994 – and a reduction in the gun murder rate. But in the last few years, more guns in the hands of more gangs may have contributed to the uptick in homicides. If we want a lower murder rate, we need fewer guns.
Beyond history, another key factor in SA’s high murder rate has to do with simple demographics. The vast majority (90%) of murderers around the world are men, especially young men. Thus, a youthful population is a good predictor of a high murder rate.
The regions with the oldest populations – Europe, Australia, New Zealand, Japan – also have the lowest homicide rates, in part because older people are just less likely to murder someone than younger people (they’re also less likely to be murdered). South Africa is a young country, with an average age of around 26 (compared to, say, 47 for Japan and 39 for Australia). A younger population means a higher murder rate.
Poverty is also a predictor of homicide rates, for various, complex reasons, and there are plenty of poor people in SA. The combination of youth and poverty is a deadly one.
The bottom line is that, with its illegal guns, poverty, and young population, South Africa’s high homicide rate is broadly predictable. Reducing it requires stricter gun control, poverty alleviation programmes, and a huge effort to provide young people with opportunities for meaningful work and success, to help them avoid the path to violence.
Time travel back to the early 1990s would not mean a lower murder rate. It would mean a higher one.