On the 20th of August 2021, Minister of the South African Police Service (SAPS), General Bheki Cele, announced the official release of the national crime statistics for quarter one (April – June) of the 2021/22 financial year period. The statistics revealed that contact crimes such as murder, attempted murder, sexual offences and all categories of assault registered a staggering 60,6% increase, compared to the corresponding period of the previous financial year.

“Contact crime refers to crimes in which the victims themselves are the targets of violence or instances where the victims are in the vicinity of property that criminals target and are subjected to the use of or threats of violence by perpetrators”.

Contact crimes also include categories of crime related to gender-based violence and femicide (GBVF) that is currently affecting women and girls at endemic levels in the country. The Commission for Gender Equality has thus obtained and analysed these crime statistics as part of its ongoing work to track, monitor and assess all developments related to GBVF in south Africa.

Contact crime statistics in their various sub-categories:

Sub-categories                                                                                          Q1 2020/21         Q1 2021/22         % Change

  • Murder                                                                                               3 466                  5 760                       (66,2% increase)
  • Sexual offences                                                                                  7 296                  12 702                     (74,1% increase)
  • Attempted murder                                                                            3 487                   5 145                       (47,5% increase)
  • Assault with the intent to inflict grievous bodily harm             22 064               37 530                     (70,1% increase)
  • Common assault                                                                                25 995              39 406                      (51,6% increase)

Dramatic increases were recorded across the various sub-categories of contact crimes between quarter 1 in 2020/21 and the same period in 2021/22, with the Minister purporting that quarter 1 of 2020/21 may have witnessed lower crime occurrences in comparison to 2021/22 due to the hard lockdown regulations that restricted movement as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic during that period. Level 5 lockdown restrictions were imposed from the 27th of March 2020 to 30th of April 2020, followed by alert level 4 from the 1st of May 2020 that followed similar stringent yet eased restrictions on movement, with the sale of alcohol banned, which is generally attributed as a causative factor of crime.

A comparison of contact crime figures during quarter 1 over the past five years reveals that contact crimes have been on an upward trajectory (except for 2020/21). In 2017/18, a total of 140 821 in contact crimes were recorded, while in 2018/19, a total of 141 115 were recorded. An increase was noted in 2019/20 where figures stood at 144 267, and in 2021/22 the figures have increased to 145 120. In 2020/21 an anomaly was witnessed whereby the overall figure for contact crimes stood at 90 376, which was the lowest figure recorded in the five-year period.

Quarter 1 of 2020/21 does stand out as a special/different period given that it coincides with the hard lockdown restrictions that were enforced during this period due to the Covid-19 global pandemic that hit South Africa. Hard lockdown restrictions entailed the closing down of taverns, liquor outlets, nightclubs, sporting activities and places of entertainment that are widely acknowledged as fertile ground for increased incidents of contact crimes. The Minister of police further dubbed this period “a crime holiday”, a statement that carries an undertone of admission that the drastic drops witnessed in the rate of contact crimes over the first quarter of 2020/21 cannot be attributed to any robust action by the police, including efficient policing, but that rather it was an accidental occurrence due to the levels 5 and 4 of lockdown restrictions.

In terms of sexual offences as a sub-category of contact crimes, a longstanding criticism of the SAPS is that their reported figures only cover cases that were reported and recorded at their police stations. In other words, SAPS statistics do not reveal the true nature of the extent of sexual offences in the country as many of these crimes go unreported. Thus, while SAPS statistics in this instance are helpful in detecting reporting patterns amongst victims/survivors, unreported cases of sexual offences such as rape remain concealed. Some of the barriers to the reporting of sexual offences include lack of confidence in the criminal justice system, particularly the police and courts; fear of intimidation by the abuser; fear of not being believed; the desire to avoid the stigma associated with rape; challenges with accessing police stations that are located far away; lack of information/knowledge, and others. Due to this challenge of under-reporting, the 12 702 figure (5 406 or 74,1% increase) of sexual offences recorded in the 1st quarter of 2021/22 may not be a true reflection of the reality of sexual violence suffered by women and girls. The figure is met with scepticism as the rate could be much higher given the many cases that go unreported.

Again, in the case of rape as a sub-category of sexual offences, similar challenges of underreporting apply. In other words, incidents of rape could be much higher than those reported in the SAPS official crime statistics. The SAPS reported that 10 006 rapes occurred in the country during the reporting period, citing that there was a 72,4% increase in figures compared to the same period in 2020/21. The figure is too high and is at its all-time highest compared to other rape figures reported over the past five-year period (9 237 in 2017/18; 9 018 in 2018/19; 9 737 in 2019/20; 5 805 in 2020/21; and the current reported 10 006 in 2021/22). This rise in figures shows that rape crimes remain unabated despite various interventions over the years by the state, civil society organisations, and other role-players to address the challenge.

Given the current gap/institutional vacuum with regards to the capturing of accurate and reliable statistics on gender-based violence, including sexual offences and other contact crimes, the country currently relies on SAPS as a key government department to record, categorise and make publicly available gender-based violence related crime statistics. SAPS reporting, however, does not reflect how various categories of victims/survivors of gender-based violence-related crimes, such as children, women, LGBTQIA+ communities, sex workers, men who are raped by other men, and women with disabilities are impacted by such crimes. Such details are important for effective planning and interventions by policymakers and service providers.

Another critical issue relating to the categorisation of SAPS crime statistics is the need to disaggregate sexual offences to reflect all offences as listed under the Sexual Offences and Related Matters Act 32 of 2007. The current release only disaggregates two sub-categories (rape and sexual assault) under the broader category of Sexual Offences. Other critical sub-categories such as incest, attempted rape and sexual grooming of children are not reflected and figures in this regard are not available.  Such information will be critical to illuminate areas of serious concern and guide the necessary processes or interventions and resource allocation to respond effectively.

Regarding murder, figures demonstrate that there was an increase of 62.2% of cases as reported by SAPS between quarter 1 of 2020/21 and quarter 1 of 2021/22. Hard lockdown restrictions, as already alluded to earlier, may have played a role in the lower rates of murders in 2020/21.  Statistics from a five-year period on the other hand illustrate a steady increase in the rate of murders, even though a drastic drop had been witnessed in 2020/21, just as was the case with other contact crime categories during quarter 1 of that year (2017/18 – 4859, 2018/19 – 4668, 2019/20 – 5398, 2020/21 – 3466, 2021/22- 5760). SAPS is arguably able to account for every murdered body in this category, meaning that the issue of under-reporting does not apply. However, from a gender perspective, SAPS statistics do not reflect important categories of femicide and the killings of the LGBTQIA+ as a result of hate crimes in their reporting.

In conclusion, it is noted that the current statistics demonstrate high increases in the levels of contact crimes between quarter 1 of 2020/21 and the same period in 2021/22. However, this seems to be a skewed comparison given peculiar circumstances of hard lockdown restrictions that prevailed during 2020 as compared to the 2021 period whereby lockdown restrictions were more relaxed. The analysis also raises important issues of the lack of gender-disaggregated data in SAPS reporting, as well as the fact that SAPS does not have gender-based violence as a crime category in a country where gender-based violence has reached epidemic levels.  Finally, South Africa remains a crime-ridden society, with limited capacity (especially in relation to crime intelligence/detection, investigative capacity and prosecutorial efficacy) among law enforcement agencies to make an impact on the levels of crimes, not just reported crimes.

Authors: Dr. Thabo Rapoo (Director: Research and Policy), Ms Naledi Selebano (CGE Researcher and Lieketseng Mohlakoana- Motopi