Covid-19, the lockdown and crime

Chris de Kock writes on Minister Bheki Cele's take on the situation

I wish to state upfront that I fully support the wisdom of the Covid-19 lockdown decision, taken by the South African Government on the advice of its health experts. I believe and trust that it can save tens of thousands and even hundreds of thousands of lives. This article is not a critique of the lockdown, it aims to improve our knowledge of crime in South Africa after Covid-19.

Minister of Police Bheki Cele should be congratulated on: a) the release of crime statistics for the first week of the lockdown, even if they are not fully verified statistics, and b) the very significant decreases in serious crimes recorded therein.

The Minister should continue to release these weekly figures compared to the same periods in 2019 for up to at least two months after the end of the lockdown. But he should also release exact comparative GBV figures (which he basically promised according to The Argus of 6 April), as well as residential and business housebreaking and street/public robbery figures.

The lockdown unintentionally provides social scientists an opportunity to test very important hypotheses, which can improve our lives after Covid-19. In particularly we will now be in a position to, for example, answer questions around the relationship between alcohol and different categories of crime, the impact of social isolation on the stability of families, the role of bars/pubs/taverns/shebeens/coffee houses and restaurants in social stability, and many others.

The Minister of Police, General Bheki Cele, in an early Sunday morning (5th April 2020 at 07h07) interview on eNCA released the following crime statistics:














Assault GBH

 2 673



Trio crimes

 8 853

 2 098


He also rectified his reference, on Thursday the 2nd April, to more than 87 000 complaints of gender-based violence since the start of the lockdown. It is not clear if he used the wrong figure on Thursday or he was incorrectly understood. But during the interview on Sunday he said clearly that in 2019 there were more then 87 000 complaints of gender-based violence; that there were 15 000 something in the first quarter of 2020; and that in the first week of the lockdown there were 2 300, for which 184 people have been charged.

He did not compare the figures of the first week of the lockdown with a similar period in 2019. The elusiveness around gender-based violence is strange, especially in the light of the fact that Government acknowledged that one of the unfortunate spinoffs of the lockdown could be an increase in such violence. One would have thought that he would have been just as exact on the number of telephonic complaints regarding gender-based violence as with the four categories of crime in Table 1.

My own feeling based on very rough/not so scientific calculations on the three figures released by the Minister is that while the reporting of gender-based violence may have declined dramatically, the actual incidents increased very significantly.

The largest proportion of the South African population is living in very small housing units (small matchbox houses and flats and especially shacks) with very little privacy and that they are now restricted to these for the lockdown period. Victims, sometimes without phones and cell phones, and perpetrators are confined together for three weeks and the question can be raised: “How and when will they have enough privacy to make the call to the relevant helplines?”

Under normal conditions most victims will make the call to the helplines and visit the Community Service Centre of their police station when the perpetrator is not in or even near the house. In all probability most of these will also happen with the emotional support of friends, family members and especially colleagues and even employers. Now the only contact with these people is telephonically, with the perpetrator within hearing distance.

The Minister should ask serious questions as to why only 184 (8%) of the 2 300 cases of gender violence reported in the first week of lockdown led to a charge according to his own figures. Were no crimes committed during the other 2 116 reported cases/incidents? Or did the officials handling these complaints convince the victims that they should not push for a charge because they will still at least have to live with the perpetrator for at least another two weeks?

I accept that the ban on the selling and transport of alcohol during the lockdown was necessary for the following reasons:

- Where alcohol is sold, especially together with food, like bars/pubs/taverns/shebeens and restaurants there is usually an accumulation of many people in a small space, who greet /hug/dance together and in these circumstances it will be difficult to apply the social distance rule for everyone to keep more than a metre apart.

- When people drink together, they become irresponsible and rowdy and they may touch each other, shout at each other in close quarters, or hang on each other, all of which may be conducive to the spread of the virus.

- Consuming too much alcohol may weaken the immune system, especially if people eat less or less healthy food because they spend too much on alcohol.

- Alcohol and cigarettes are not essential food and that is why it can’t be produced, transported and sold in this period. It will just expose thousands of more workers to the virus.

It again has to be emphasized that the above are explanations for the alcohol ban that this analyst encountered during the last three weeks and the purpose of this article is not to question anyone of these.

What is interesting, is that during Minister Cele’s interview on the 5th he released the figures in Table 1 in order to support his explanation that crime is significantly down because of the ban on sales and transport of alcohol. He did not present any other possible explanation. This did not come as a surprise because the Minister of Police has, since the release of the crime statistics in September 2019, expressed a firm belief that if alcohol abuse could be eliminated we would see the same kind of decrease in murder as in the period 2003/2004 to 2011/2012, and especially 2009/2010 to 2011/2012.

The Minister was the SAPS National Commissioner in the last mentioned period of three years. He should know very well that the decrease during these - and the previous six years, under Jackie Selebi - had much more to do with clear crime reduction targets, intelligence-led visible policing, as well as focused intelligence on organised threats, than with a reduction in alcohol abuse.

One pointer that the reduction of alcohol abuse is not the most powerful short-term intervention to reduce murder and other crime (as National Commissioner Cele always referred to “low hanging fruit”), is the fact that from 2012/2013 to 2018/2019 murder increased by 35.2% and trio crimes by 38.8%. It is highly unlikely that this increase was a result of a sudden increase in alcohol abuse.

It is very likely that this was as a result of the weakening of SAPS by the whole environment created by state capture along with a very strong erosion of crime reduction targets, intelligence led visible policing, and the weakening of Crime Intelligence and the Hawks. Also, the weakening of the National Prosecuting Authority. The Minister should know that the SAPS’ own analysis over the years indicates that although in 1995 up to 85 % of murders were alcohol related, in the last ten years that decreased to around 50%. The other half of murders are mostly the result of robbery, vigilante and gang killings, or are hate crime related - and these have nothing to do with alcohol.

The magnificent decreases in crime during the first week of lockdown, can largely if not solely, be attributed to the fact that most of South Africa’s people (including the usual perpetrators) are confined to their houses. If you are in the streets you have to have an explanation why you are there, especially after 18h00 and to at least 08h00, which is when some essential shops and pharmacies start to open. This period is usually when most serious crimes are committed.

In all probability the perpetrators who commit crime like robberies (which include the trio crimes), housebreakings and motor vehicle theft are still living on the fat that they accumulated in the pre-lockdown phase, and according to their own risk analysis it is not safe to continue with their “work” at this stage. Those who usually assault people may in all probability now have run out of alcohol and cigarette reserves.

They will start to develop withdrawal conditions; so-called cabin fever may start to really kick in, and this will all lead to higher levels of GBV/domestic violence within the household as there is no bar/tavern/shebeen and or restaurant/coffeeshop to relax in, or to fight with strangers. The irony is that what happens within households will not be reported because the victims don’t have enough privacy and moral support (from friends, acquaintances, colleagues) to support reporting.