After a respite in 2020 caused by Covid-19 lockdowns and curfews, it appears that crime and violence in South Africa are returning to pre-pandemic levels.
In recent days, a candidate for the ruling African National Congress (ANC) party was gunned down ahead of forthcoming local elections, while three women were killed and several others injured in a drive-by shooting, also of ANC members.
Such killings have become almost ‘normal’ in the country, political violence in the democratic era, beginning in 1994, never fully subsiding. And in recent months, it has resurged as an important poll looms.
But there are many types of murderous violence at play.
In incidents over the last week, three young women were shot in the head in the sprawling shantytown of Khayelitsha, outside Cape Town, in an execution-style killing.
While still under investigation, these murders may have links to so-called ‘blessers’, older men who trade sex for gifts and money with young women.
In Johannesburg’s ‘sister city’ of Soweto, a well-known ‘richman’ was killed along with a young woman who was with him when gunmen riddled his Ferrari sports car with dozens of bullets, rendering the vehicle “unrecognisable”.
Meanwhile, a former policewoman is in court facing multiple murder and conspiracy to murder charges of loved ones and family members.
At least six people are alleged to have been killed by hitmen on her orders so that she could cash in on life insurance policies she had taken out on them.
Among the people she allegedly ordered hits on were her elderly mother, her partner, two sisters and five nephews and nieces, one surviving an attempted hit.
According to evidence in this headline-capturing case, which has shocked even violence-hardened South Africans, one of the ‘hits’, on her mother, was to be undertaken for just $170.
Police Minister Bheki Cele has again this week addressed the issue of how cheap life has become in SA, referencing, as he has repeatedly, the problem of a “nest of killers” mostly operating out of the Zulu homeland of KwaZulu-Natal, but also in Gauteng (great Johannesburg) or anywhere in the county, as required by those who use them.
Among those most closely associated with the use of hitmen to settle scores with rivals are SA’s notorious minibus taxi (matatu) owners and owners’ associations.
Hitmen for hire
The ‘hitmen for hire’ frequently involved, often with innocent commuters being among casualties, are also identified with ongoing political violence plaguing KwaZulu-Natal especially, as well as with ‘ordinary’ murders.
For most of the mid- to late-1990s and into the 2000s, SA topped global murder rates, with killings running to a high of 63.9 per 100,000 people in 1995, according to World Bank data.
Partly, the violence was then, and still is, ascribed to the ongoing negative effects of the apartheid system of racial oppression, and consequently to South Africa being one of the most unequal societies in the world.
But, through that same period and up to today, SA has also topped the global rape rate, with 132.4 per 100,000 people, compared with the US’s 27.3, in ninth place globally.
Taken together with murder and other violent crime rates, the rape figures indicate to sociologists and criminologists that there are other societal factors at play in SA’s continuing sky-high incidence of inter-personal violence.
With a population of some 60 million, less than a fifth that of the US, South Africa has substantially more murders per year than that vast country of over 330 million.
SA’s adjusted murder rate per 100,000 people is currently at 31.8, compared to the US’s 4.2.
By comparison, Africa’s overall murder rate (for 2017, the latest year available as assessed by the World Population Review) was 13, Europe’s 3 and Asia 2.3 per 100,000.
Within Africa, Kenya had 4.87 murders per 100,000, while Uganda recorded 11.5 and Somalia just 4.3.
From its peak killings of the mid-1990s, SA steadily dropped in its murder rate through 2011, when it recorded 29.8 murders per 100,000, roughly half the rate of the immediate post-apartheid period.
But since 2012 it has seen a steady increase, only briefly interrupted by Covid-19 social controls, including bans on alcohol sales and public consumption, as well as curfews, reducing many alcohol-related violent crimes.
Not counting this year’s sharp rise, South Africa had dropped in 2020 indices and is ranked only the fifth most dangerous country out of the 144 covered.
Liberia, Venezuela, Gabon and Afghanistan had eclipsed SA, but the country seems headed back to the top of the murder list, based on current trends.
As a measure of the situation, just 29 per cent of South Africans feel safe walking alone at any time of day.
By another measure, that of the Numbeo 2021 Crime Index, South Africa is the third most dangerous country in the world to live in, with six cities featuring in the top 20 most dangerous cities globally.
The independent Institute for Security Studies highlighted the main contributors to the ‘culture of violence’ ravaging this society as poverty and inequality, as well as social stress from harsh environments in early childhood, lack of adequate parenting, high recidivism of nearly 90 percent for many violent crimes, and an overburdened criminal justice system.
So widespread is violence in SA that the government has an ongoing programme against gender-based violence (GBV), and a new term has been coined for violence in schools, also on the increase, and dubbed learner-on-educator violence (LOEV).
Violence between school-going and tertiary institution students is also common.
Most recently, two University of the Free State female students were killed, and others injured, during a vicious robbery on the campus.
Reflecting the mood of many South Africans, the university’s vice-chancellor Francis Petersen said the violence had to stop, adding: “Enough is enough”.