The police are struggling to cope with the crime levels
President Jacob Zuma has backed proposed measures for South African police to use lethal force against armed criminals.
"We have an abnormal criminal problem, for that we have to explore extraordinary means," he told a meeting of 1,000 police station commanders.
The new law would allow police to shoot even if criminals have not fired first.
However, Mr Zuma said he was not encouraging a culture of trigger-happy police officers.
South Africa has one of the world's highest rates of violent crime. Some 50 people are murdered every day.
CRIME IN SOUTH AFRICA
Sexual offences: 71,500 (10%)
Burglaries: 18,400 (27%)
Business robberies: 13,900 (41%)
Murder: 18,000 (3%)
Street robbery: 72,194 (7%)
Correspondents say President Zuma could be trying to calm fears that crime could be a problem at the 2010 football World Cup which South Africa is hosting.
"My thinking is that once a criminal takes out the gun, the intention is clear. The police must then act to protect himself or herself and the citizens," President Zuma said, drawing applause from the assembled police officers, reports the AFP news agency.
New crime figures were released last week, showing a slight fall in the murder rate.
But 18,000 people were still killed in the past year.
The figures showed a 10% rise in sexual offences and an increase in robberies.
The legacy of apartheid, social deprivation and corruption within the police force are among the reasons often cited for high levels of crime.