Crime and Paranoia

Star Walls SecuritySouth African suburbs look an awful lot like Houston or Los Angeles. But one difference stands out to the American eye: the Dostoevskian lengths people go to for home security.

In upscale neighborhoods, motion-detector alarm systems and electric fences are de rigeur. And this is on top of high walls, barred windows, padlocked gates, the block watchman, and the instant response team.

One South African company is marketing both fibre-optic detection barriers and the fearsome “Star Walls Security Spikes System” to home consumers.  (The website boasts these systems already protect U.S. nuclear sites.)

And every foreign visitor who sees this South African “architecture of fear” for the first time has the same question: how much of this is motivated by rational fear, and how much is paranoia?

When I first arrived in Johannesburg, I was incredibly jumpy. Virtually the only thing anyone had told me about the city was that it was incredibly dangerous, with skyrocketing crime rates. The murder capital of the world, many said.

It also didn’t help that just before coming here, Bob and I watched Tsotsi, a great South African movie about a Johannesburg gangster who hijacks a car and finds a baby in the back seat.  Silver screen images of knifings and gunfights fresh in my mind, I was afraid to be outside a wall in the dark for even a few minutes.

Gradually I’ve developed a more realistic sense of safety here. I now know my way around the inner city pretty well, exercising the same street smarts I developed in Chicago.  I know which neighborhoods are safe for hanging out until 2am, and which ones it’s better to leave before dusk.  Apart from some minor vandalism, Bob and I haven’t had any first-hand experience with crime.

All this makes me think that the fear of street crime in Jo’burg is grossly exaggerated. But then, there are all these other things. Like the fact that both of the Canadian interns at CALS had run-ins with crime during their few months here (a mugging and two ATM scams). And that my fellow Fulbright scholar actually witnessed a robbery/murder when he was here a few years ago.

People Who Have Stolen From MeAnecdotal evidence being what it is, I decided to investigate this question more deliberately.  I started with a fascinating book about crime in South Africa, People Who Have Stolen from Me, which I reviewed on the blog a while back.

That book is great for getting an impression of the landscape of crime in South Africa, characterized by massive income inequalities, rapid social change, police corruption, and a weak state. But it’s also based mostly on anecdotal evidence.

To get a more accurate picture, I turned to statistics.

First off, I quickly learned that you have to treat crime statistics with a great deal of caution. For certain crimes, such as rape and domestic violence, the official figures are notoriously unreliable, because of massive underreporting to the police. Canada, for instance, has the world’s second-highest rate of reported rapes; not because rape is especially common there, but because its criminal justice system is especially victim-friendly.

Official murder statistics, however, are considered relatively reliable. Because murder is a particularly serious crime that tends to leave behind indisputable evidence (a body), it almost always gets reported and counted. So this is the best indicator to use when trying to compare crime rates over time or between locations.

I was surprised to see how dramatically murder rates can vary over time. In 1985 there were 147 murders in Washington DC; a rate of 23/100,000 residents. By 1991 the figure was 482; a rate of 81/100,000. That’s almost a four-fold increase in the murder rate over only seven years. The rate is now back down to around 35/100,000.

So you can’t speak of a city or country’s crime rate as if it is something steady over time. Murder statistics — and presumably other varieties of crime as well — are actually very sensitive to things like improved policing, or DC’s mid-1980s crack epidemic.

Looking at the most reliable statistics, it turns out the post-apartheid government has been very good on crime. In 1995/1996, a total of 26,877 murders were reported to South African police. That number has fallen steadily to 18,793 in 2004/2005. This suggests a 30% reduction in crime during the first decade of democracy.

You wouldn’t know it to talk to the man on the street however. Despite the strong statistical evidence that crime is dramatically decreasing, most people believe it is rapidly rising since the end of apartheid. The BBC reports:

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.

It’s true that South Africa has acquired that reputation since the end of apartheid. But it’s not true that soaring crime rates are to blame for the shift in public perception.

So what does explain this paradox? Two things.

First, the conventional wisdom is supported by an unsophisticated look at the data. The number of reported assaults, burglaries, and rapes has in fact been gradually increasing ever since the end of apartheid.

Crime experts explain that these figures suggest that better policing is “catching” more of the crime that happens, and higher public confidence in police is improving rates of reporting. But the statistical subtleties are lost on the mass media.

Second, people’s experience of crime trends since the end of apartheid depends on their race. Under apartheid, the government vigorously patrolled white neighborhoods, while black neighborhoods were more likely to be victimized by police than protected by them.

So it may be that white folks actually are less safe today than they were under apartheid, because they no longer enjoy the concentrated protection of crime-fighting efforts. This reflects a more general trend toward equalization in post-apartheid South Africa, which black citizens perceive as things getting better, but white citizens perceive as things getting worse.

I couldn’t find numbers to test the theory that white South Africans are more frequently victimized by crime today than they were under apartheid. But statistical evidence does show that fear of crime in South Africa is dramatically shaped by race.

One  survey conducted in Pretoria found that black respondents were four times as likely to have been victims of crime as white respondents: 22% over a five-year period as opposed to 5%.  This makes sense as race is still very closely tied with poverty in South Africa, and poverty correlates strongly with vulnerability to crime.

Despite the fact that white South Africans are less likely than blacks to become victims of crime, however, they are much more afraid of it.  Another survey showed that only 35% of white South Africans say they feel “very safe” during the day, compared to 64% of black South Africans.  Clearly there is a mismatch between objective exposure to crime risk and subjective feelings of safety.

This lends credence to the theory that white fear of crime is heavily influenced by racial paranoia. But paranoia is not the full extent of the story.  South Africa’s crime rates really are objectively high compared to the rest of the world.

Despite recent progress, South Africa still stands out internationally for high crime rates. A 1998 report identified South Africa as the murder capital of the world, just beating out Colombia.

It’s a bit unfair that the label has stuck, though, because 1998 appears to be the only year South Africa has topped the list – and then just barely. That year the murder rate was 59/100,000; it is now closer to 40/100,000. South Africa is not the murder capital of the world; that honor goes to Colombia.


Still, third place is hardly a position to be proud of. South African crime rates are roughly ten times what you find in the United States, and roughly fifty times what you find in Great Britain, with its stricter regulation of firearms. And so it makes sense that South Africans with income to spare will spend more of it on home security than Americans or Brits.



But the dramatic improvements over the past decade make clear that frustration with post-apartheid government is misplaced. The conventional wisdom that crime has soared since the beginning of democracy is simply wrong.  In housing, education and health, progress has indeed been painfully slow.  On crime, however, it has actually been quite dramatic.

It just doesn’t feel that way to everyone.



18 responses to “Crime and Paranoia

  1. this reminds me of a security system common in greater South America: mortar liberally spread atop walls, with broken bottles placed across the surface. i’m unsure if thieves had a systematic approach to this defense, but it frightened me from my usual wall climbing!

  2. glorious.

  3. Susan Reitberger

    So this really doesn’t have anything to do with this entry. But I was wondering if you were the Lea Bishop I knew growing up in Tampa. I was Susan Cain then, and I found some really old e-mails from your Mom the other day and thought I’d see if I could look you up. So I googled your name and came across this webiste. If you are not the Lea I am looking for I am sorry to have bothered you.

  4. Suzy Cain! So glad we’re in touch again!

  5. Pingback: Fear and Loathing in South Africa « Ag in Africa

  6. If you want to find out what is really happening in South Africa regarding crime go to which is a daily update of crimes covered in the Sth African newspapers. The site has archives of the past 3 months or so. Anybody who doesn’t think that crime is out of control after reading this believes in the Easter bunny.

  7. Excellent report. Apart from equating Britain’s low level of legal gun ownership with it’s mundane level of violence, there were many truths.

    A lot of Afrikaners are incredibly paranoid and always seem to claim South Africa or Johannesburg are the murder capitals of the world every year. The fact is that South Africa has occasionally been ahead of Colombia (it’s normally below it) and Johannesburg was never in a million years the murder capital of the world – Medellin was surprisingly worse (i.e. not exactly a photo finish – look up the stats) and since that city’s precipitous decline in homicide it’s now somewhere like Caracas or Rio.

    Having said that, the level of violence in South Africa is still incredibly high, it’s just the white population don’t half go on about it and are often guilty of some disgraceful exaggerating and deliberate misuse of statistics.

  8. Greg Berchenko

    The South Africa sucks blog has a racist agenda and is not a reliabe measure of crime.

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  10. As an African living in the UK I hope people realize that this ‘blog’ is totally subjective and does not report correctly any Jozi’s daily life. Jozi is the crime capital of the world – London is fast catching up. However, crime has drastically increased since SA was freed from apartheid – despite the incorrect reportings – the fear here is rational and necessary to survive – attacks are vicious and unprecedented. There are as many wealthy black people as white people and as many blacks and whites living in poverty. Stop the racist rubbish – do not patronize Africans – both Black and White Africans are proud to be African – the racists are the ‘pc’ brigade of the Western European countries who are constantly aware of ‘colour’ and social inequality – look at your own countries and put these things right there before becoming ‘do-gooders’ in our countries – social inequality is a world problem – apartheid is long gone praise god, now stop trying to tell everyone that Africa is paradise – its not – its a beautiful continent with beautiful people and ravaged by mistrust, dirty politics, dictators and thieves as well as really good people – just like the rest of the world. But if you are thinking of living in Johannesburg/Jozi – you will live with fear and be in danger – get real.

  11. Uhm, Dawe, Caracas is the world’s crime capital and there are other numerous cities more dangerous than Johannesburg. South Africa’s murder rate also continues to decrease practically every year. Those are the facts my friend.

  12. South Africa is the CRIME, MURDER Capital of the World.

    60 to 149 MURDERS per DAY South Africa



    South Africa is the CRIME, MURDER Capital of the World.

    According to South African Police Services: Murders 60 per DAY.
    According to Department of Home Affairs: Murders 83 per DAY.
    According to Medical Research Council: Murders 89 per DAY
    According to Interpol claims: Murders 149 per DAY.

    The reason for this under-reporting of MURDER and CRIME in South Africa could be the desire by the ANC Government to change the growing reputation of South Africa as the “crime capital of the world”, this title is one any government would desperately want to lose as it would cause any potential investor to take his money elsewhere.

    According to South African Police Services 21,683 per year
    According to South African Police Services 60 per DAY in South Africa
    Police new computerised Geographic Information System (GIS), which, as of June 2001, had been implemented at 340 priority police stations covering 80% of the country.
    According to Department of Home Affairs, 30,068 per year
    According to Department of Home Affairs, 83 per day.

    According to Medical Research Council 32,482
    According to Medical Research Council 89 murders

    MRC statistics, there are 89 murders committed on average every day in South Africa.
    Non-natural” deaths from 37 mortuaries in six provinces (note that South Africa now has nine provinces).
    MRC’s revelation of serious under-registration and misclassification in the government’s death statistics was gleaned from various sources.
    According to Interpol claims 54,298 per year.
    According to Interpol claims 149 per day.


    Interpol figures South Africa has extraordinary high level of VIOLENT CRIME. It is South Africa’s high level of violent crime which sets the country apart from other crime ridden societies. This finding is supported by CIAC data indicating that since 1994 recorded violent crime has been escalating at a faster rate than any other crime category. It is primarily violent crime which fuels people’s fear of crime. To lose its label as crime capital of the world, violent crime levels have to drop substantially in South Africa.

    Google: Murder, Crime, South Africa

    South Africa is the CRIME , MURDER Capital of the World.
    60 to 149 MURDERS per DAY South Africa

  13. “According to South African Police Services: Murders 60 per DAY.”

    False. 50 a day (18,487 yearly).

    “According to Department of Home Affairs: Murders 83 per DAY.”

    False. The Department of Home Affairs don’t have murder statistics for the country.

    “According to Medical Research Council: Murders 89 per DAY”

    False. The Medical Research Council’s murder capital of South Africa is the Cape Town area with a relatively paltry 63 per 100,000. The rate given above for the entire country is higher than that and twice the MRC rate for Johannesburg. Go figure. The MRC also lacks nationwide coverage.

    “According to Interpol claims: Murders 149 per DAY.”

    False. Interpol have no murder statistics for South Africa. They obtain them from national police services, and have frequently been found to tabulate attempted murders with murders without making the average reader aware.

    Venezuela and Caracas are the murder capitals of the world.

  14. Crime in South Africa is mad. Whether its increasing or not I don’t know, I don’t know whose side to pick on this thread as I have seen a lot of conflicting data, a lot of this data even includes accredited citations.

  15. jamesbrownfuhrer

    I don’t know what the foolish logic is behind all this? But from what I understand, there’s a strong possibility of some government censorship regarding the actual crime-stats on S-Africa. ….Numerous sources indicate how woman are encouraged to not stop at red lights to avoid being raped! (It should be noted that S-Africa is the undisputed rape capital of the world (by far)! >Google-it! …………..Other than that, I’d say the author of this blog is your typical, run of the mill, politically-correct fashion-victim, whom is bent on proving to the world that he/she is not a racist!

    …….But too bad for the rest of us that Hollywood has the same world-view!

  16. I wonder who is commiting all the violent crime in SA. It’s the evil racist white bigots right? White men in a state of frenzied racial hated terrorizing the inner cities with robbery and murder sprees. I bet female black south africans are constantly being gang-raped by roving mobs of racist white men. We all know that apartheid was created by evil racist white men, not because they wanted to shield their women and children form black criminality, but because they are morally inferior. But when blacks commit crime, they are still a righteous people. It is economic conditions that force them to commit crimes. They have no choice but to rape, torture, & mutilate defenseless women. They aren’t raping women in order to get a free orgasm at someone else’s expense. Gang-raping women somehow helps poor impoverished black men put food on the table and feed their families.

  17. I¡¦ve recently started a blog, the information you offer on this web site has helped me tremendously. Thanks for all of your time & work.

  18. Scary figure on the international murder graph! its a reality in SA, as people get attacked in their own homes. Found this article that shows the crime stats for each area.

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