South 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.
Anecdotal 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.