According to a report by the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNDOC) focusing on the countries with the highest murder rates, South Africa currently has a murder rate of 36 per 100,000 people – one of the highest murder rates in the world. In fact, the global homicide rate, measured as the victims of homicide per 100,000 people, declined from 7.2 in 1992, to 6.1 in 2017.
According to a report by BusinessTech, the UNDOC study seeks to shed light on gender-related killings, lethal gang violence and other challenges, with the aim of bringing homicide rates around the world.
The data shows that the overall number of people who suffered a violent death as a result of homicide increased in the past quarter of a century, from 395,542 in 1992 to 464,000 in 2017.
However, because the global population has risen faster than the increase in recorded homicide victims, the overall risk of being killed in homicides has declined steadily.
According to the UN’s data, between 1994 and 2017, 485,260 murders have been recorded in South Africa. The latest stats from the SAPS for 2017/2018 recorded 20,306 for the period, meaning over 500,000 people have been murdered in the country since the dawn of democracy.
In South Africa the data shows that there was a sharp downward trend in the homicide rate after the country abolished the apartheid system in the early 1990s.
“The country’s transition to multiparty democracy was accompanied by a continuous decline in the homicide rate for many years, but since 2011 it has been increasing again,” the report said.
“Contrary to popular perception, however, analysis of long-term recorded rates of lethal violence shows that this is by no means a post-apartheid phenomenon.
“Despite data limitations and jurisdictional inconsistencies resulting in a probably large undercount of homicide victims throughout the twentieth century, the country’s official homicide rate has been well above the current global average since at least the 1920s.”
The UN said that the steady increase in the homicide rate in the first half of the twentieth century corresponds to a period of rapid urbanisation and industrialisation.
This generated major social disruption, as millions moved from traditional, rural contexts to urban townships organised around different values and structures of authority, it said.
“The escalation in homicide from the mid-1950s reflects the impact of the State’s apartheid policies of enforced racial segregation.
“Large-scale forcible removals destroyed communities and social networks, caused widespread trauma and entrenched poor conditions and spatial exclusion.
“With the intensification of political conflict, the 1980s saw the already high homicide rate spiral to unprecedented levels. About a quarter of the fatalities in the early 1990s were directly attributed to political violence, notably competition between different political and ethnic factions.”
Using different population estimates, other contemporary sources calculated rates even higher than those indicated here, suggesting that by 1993 the homicide rate was above 80 or even above 90 per 100,000 population, the researchers said.
Post-1994 vs pre-1994
In 1994, the police recorded almost 26,000 homicides nationally or a rate of 63 per 100,000.
After the political transition of 1994, the homicide rate began to decline by about 5% per year – halving over the course of two decades, the UN said.
“Other data sources, including mortuary records and surveys, corroborate the trend,” it said.
“Mortuary data suggest that some of the decline can be attributed to a reduction in firearm availability following a policy overhaul.
“The reduction in non-firearm homicide has been significantly more modest, such that sharp-force injuries now appear to be the principal means of homicide in the country.”
Surge in the availability of illegal firearm
The downward trajectory has shown a reversal in recent years, however, with the homicide rate climbing from 30 per 100,000 in 2011 to 36 per 100,000 in 2017, the UN said.
The reasons for this remain unclear, but it may have to do with a surge in the availability of illegal firearms, including hundreds diverted from police custody by corrupt officials, particularly to gangs, it said.
“The rise in the homicide rate may also be related to an increase in public protest and political turmoil stemming from perceptions of state corruption and popular frustration at the slow provision of resources (e.g. sanitation and decent housing).h
“According to the best available estimates, South Africa’s official homicide rate has been above 20 per 100,000 population since the 1950s and above 30 per 100,000 since the 1960s.
“Understanding the long history of chronic violence while taking recent developments into account (e.g. changes in political leadership, police resources and the abolition of the death penalty) is important in order to find solutions to the country’s persistently high homicide rate.”