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Crime statistics - less swagger please

Andrew Harding | 15:26 UK time, Friday, 10 September 2010

16,834 murders in one year. Hardly something to crow about - and to be fair, South Africa's police bosses were not exactly punching the air at the news conference where they unveiled the latest annual crime statistics.

Police arrest suspect (file photo)

The police say they are making progress in the fight against crime

But there was an unmistakeable swagger from the podium as the graphs and pie-charts revealed substantial, or at least significant, drops in a range of violent crimes. No need, for a change, for the dark arts of spin to twist the grim statistics into something resembling progress.

The World Cup wasn't included in the latest figures - which covered the year running up to this March. But the crime figures did help explain why the tournament proved to be such a safe, successful event.

The police experts on hand to explain their graphs pointed out, not for the first time, that "about 90%" of all violent assaults in the country were between people who knew each other - mostly in the poorest communities in brawls fuelled by alcohol and drugs.

About 65% of murders fell into the same category. In other words, there are two South Africas, a nation now more sharply divided by class - let's leave race aside for once - than almost any other. Locals may ricochet between the two worlds, but foreign tourists rarely catch more than a glimpse of the poorer, more dangerous one.

But back to the drop in violent crimes - and the third biggest fall in murders since records began. How to explain it?

Sceptics will argue - not unreasonably - that the police are cooking the figures. They do have a track record. But murder numbers are harder to fake, and a trend of sorts seems to be developing. "Stabilisation" was the word on everyone's lips at the news conference - from police, analysts, and business representatives.

Many seemed quietly confident that years of investment in infrastructure and intelligence gathering - as well as a big rise in the number of police - were finally starting to pay off.

But let's not get carried away. Private security officials shake their heads in despair when they see how feeble the police still are when it comes to gathering, sharing and acting on intelligence. The force is riddled with corruption. And talk of "stabilisation" seems absurd when you stop to think about the numbers involved.

Almost 17,000 murders a year. That sounds like a war zone, not a country. Making a serious dent in those figures will require a lot more than better policing - and South Africa's entrenched poverty and unemployment could well be here for generations.

There has been some progress, and I can understand that it may be hard to maintain the appropriate level of outrage, year after year, but the police and the government could do a better job of hiding that swagger I saw on the podium.


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