South Africa: Beware of misleading crime statistics

Residents of poor neighborhoods are generally less likely to report a crime

Lydia (pseudonym) lives in Delft, Cape Town. This weekend, men broke into Lydia’s house and stole her television, microwave and kettle. It was the second burglary since December. The last time was worse because she and her family encountered the criminals. Luckily, this time they weren’t even aware of the thieves’ presence.

Lydia did not bother to report this weekend’s incident to the police. They don’t do anything, she explains, and she’s unsure.

About a year ago, a friend visiting a GroundUp staff member who lives near Kirstenhof was attacked by teenagers as he got out of his car. They stole his cell phone. He immediately reported it to the Kirstenhof police, not because he believed the cops would get his phone back, but so he could file an insurance claim.

The Kirstenhof area, by South African standards, is a safer middle-class neighborhood. Delft, on the other hand, is a crime-riddled working-class area with high unemployment. It’s obvious to anyone who lives in Cape Town, but if you look at the crime statistics, that’s not what you see.

News24 has created a Crime Check website. It shows that Kirstenhof has a serious crime risk 23% higher than the national average for 2021. In contrast, Delft is 14% higher than the national average.

But ask anyone with experience in the two areas where they feel the greatest risk of “serious crime,” and their answer won’t be consistent with those findings.

There is a clear reason for the mismatch with the statistics: residents of Kirstenhof and the surrounding area are mostly insured. They must report property crimes to make insurance claims. The very active neighborhood watch in the area also encourages residents to report any crime to the police. While security in the region is almost entirely privatized, there is still some engagement with SAPS.

In contrast, in Delft there is very little money to pay for private security. There is little trust in the police and few people have insurance, so there is no reason for people to waste their time reporting property crimes or even assaults to the police. Therefore, the daily crimes they suffer are not recorded in the statistics.

In South Africa, the only vaguely reliable crime statistic is murder. Hiding bodies is difficult and it is a crime that is generally recorded wherever it occurs.

Five murders were recorded on the grounds of Kirstenhof last year. There were 224 recorded in Delft (source: Institute for Security Studies). The Delft precinct has a larger population, but not nearly 45 times larger.

Almost every neighborhood in South Africa is at risk of serious crime – even the relatively low five murders in 2021 in the Kirstenhof compound are alarming. Crime and unemployment consistently top the list of citizens’ main concerns in surveys.

But crime is by no means evenly distributed across the country – residents of poor neighborhoods in big cities experience far more violent crime than residents of affluent neighborhoods. Moreover, as the Social Justice Coalition and others have often shown, and as the 2014 Khayelitsha policing survey made clear, the distribution of resources to prevent crime is skewed. in favor of the more affluent suburbs.

Misleading statistics produce wrong policies. If we put police resources in Kirstenhof because it is more “dangerous” than Delft, we will only make the problem worse. People in Delft will have even fewer reasons to report crimes, and our statistics will be increasingly skewed.

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