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Monday, 8 April, 2002, 11:12 GMT 12:12 UK
SA targets rampant crime
Police recapture vigilantes who escaped from a holding cell
South Africans are sceptical about quick fixes
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By the BBC's Carolyn Dempster
Johannesburg
line

Cracking the problem of crime remains the single biggest challenge facing South Africa's Government.

This year R31.8 billion ($3.5 billion) was budgeted to pay for the fight against crime, 11% of total government spending.

It is one indication that the war against crime remains a high priority, and is far from being won.

Safety and Security Minister Steve Tshwete recently assessed the government's progress in the ongoing battle in this way:

"It is true that decent law-abiding South Africans continue to be robbed, killed and raped, but it is not true that this country is the crime capital of the world," he said.

  Click here to see international murder rates compared

"We are certainly winning the war against crime, and the final battle in that war will be fought and won in the coloured and African townships - the apartheid slums that continue to be the mainstay of violent crime in the country."

No quick fix

The problem is, do South Africa's citizens, international investors and potential tourists believe him?

In the years following the transition to democracy in 1994, South Africa's soaring crime rate earned it the reputation of the most dangerous country in the world outside of a war zone.

While the government HAS worked very hard to combat crime, improve the efficiency of the criminal justice system and lose this reputation, tough talk and empty promises of quick fixes by high-ranking police officers and politicians has left the public bitter and sceptical.

President Mbeki
President Mbeki wants public support for crime fight
"I think it's a bit premature to say that the government is getting crime under control," says Martin Schonteich, a senior crime analyst at the Institute for Security Studies in Pretoria.

"To win this battle, the government has to show a decrease in crime rates over a two- to three-year period. Although there has been a slowdown in the crime rate, in the so-called crime hotspots it is still increasing."

Mr Schonteich says there has been a marked shift in government policy from crime prevention to a tougher "law and order" approach in recent years, largely as a result of public pressure.

But he says the benefits may be short-term.

"The focus in the fight against crime since 1999 has been to promulgate tougher laws, with high profile police crackdown operations. It gives the public a sense that something is being done.

"But if the government doesn't have the capacity to implement the laws, or follow through on the crime crackdowns, then they are worth very little," he added.

Dockets disappear

Mr Tshwete confessed to parliament that 1,448 case dockets had simply "disappeared" last year.

Criminals claim they can pay as little as R3,000 to have their dockets "lost" by corrupt policemen or court officials.

South African police
Police training is being improved
Mr Schonteich maintains the true test of the law-and-order policy is whether or not it translates into prosecutions and convictions.

"Those criminals responsible for serious violent crime are not getting caught in the net."

In recent months the ministry of safety and security has been trumpeting the successes of its integrated National Crime Combating Strategy introduced in April 2000.

Nonetheless, South Africa still has unacceptably high levels of crime, with more than 15,000 murders and 21,000 attempted murders recorded between January and September last year.

This excludes the Christmas and New Year season when crime regularly peaks.

Alcohol abuse is known to be a contributing factor in 60% of crimes.

A National Victim Survey conducted by the government in 1997, revealed that about half of all crimes are never reported.

Scorpions

But crime-weary South Africans are eager for good news, which is one of the reasons behind the recent nationwide crime sweep "Operation Tsipa."

This month police commissioner Jackie Selebi announced that more than 32,000 people had been arrested between January and March, 1,470 vehicles seized, 1,057 illegal firearms and 1,031 stolen goods.

South African police officer
The government has been trumpeting police successes

Good news, which gives a much-needed psychological boost to public morale.

Perhaps more significant, say criminologists, is the slow but steady improvement in police training, the establishment of a well functioning criminal justice system that is better equipped to put criminals behind bars and keep them there, and the targeted successes of integrated specialist police units, like the Scorpions, South Africa's own FBI, tasked with tackling organised crime.

Partnerships with the private sector in the form of organisations like "Business Against Crime" have also paid off, particularly in cities, where businesses are motivated to pay to protect their environment with closed circuit television.

Leaders recognise that without the active help of the public, there is no prospect of winning the war on crime.

President Thabo Mbeki has called 2002 the year of the volunteer.

The ruling African National Congress says it aims to enlist ordinary citizens to reclaim the streets from criminals.

Private lawyers have offered to help clear the backlog of cases in the courts, in their own time, for no fee. It is one more attempt to turn the tide.

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See also:

18 Sep 00 | Africa
SA: Row over freed convicts
12 Oct 00 | Africa
SA targets guns
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