The biggest problem to face in dealing with violent crime is not that of organized groups of criminals or insurgents, but a normalization of violence that infects interpersonal relationships in South Africa. Increasing police resources or deploying the army does not solve this problem. We need policy measures that tackle this distortion of our culture, and early childhood development is the key to success.
South Africa faces a widely recognized epidemic of violence. Events like the riots in July that killed more than 300 people and the taxi violence that erupted shortly thereafter all make the problem of violence in South Africa appear to be getting worse.
Unfortunately, the data supports this narrative, as the national murder rate (which is the most reliable indicator of violent crime) has steadily increased over the past 10 years. This despite the good progress that was made after the end of apartheid when the homicide rate reduced by more than half between 1994 and 2011.
The murder problem is acutely felt in the urban slums and the townships of the major metros. Cape Town, for example, was ranked as the country’s deadliest city in 2020, and the 8th deadliest city in the world. The bulk of these murders happened in the townships of the city.
To put this in perspective, consider that the death rate from the brutal civil war in Syria in 2020 was around 39.5 people per 100,000. In contrast, the murder rate in Cape Town for the same year was 68 , 28 per 100,000 inhabitants.
In other words, in 2020, the average Capetonian was more likely to be murdered than the average Syrian was to be killed by civil war.
So what is the government’s strategy to deal with this onslaught? Since the apartheid transition, several progressive policies have been adopted to promote a multi-pronged effort to combat violence and crime. The 1996 National Crime Prevention Strategy (NCPS) advocated a holistic approach to crime prevention that not only engaged the criminal justice system, but also encouraged a multi-ministerial effort to identify and target the root causes of crime.
In the early 2000s, however, SNPC loss of traction, and the criminal justice system (the police, courts and prisons) has become the main tool through which the government has sought to control violence and crime, sometimes supplemented by the military.
The current national budget allocates a considerable amount of R 104.6 billion to the police, while another amount of R 46.7 billion goes to courts and prisons. There is not much else in the budget that is explicitly designed to target crime and violence. Rising murder rates generally prompt the police to engage in new crime-fighting strategies, while extreme spikes in violence prompt the deployment of the military.
Improving police capacity is certainly important in reducing violence and there are multiple evidence-based policies which could be adopted to improve the efficiency of the police.
Yet the general sentiment behind the NCPS was correct: even if the criminal justice system improves, that in itself is insufficient to significantly reduce violence and lawlessness.
This becomes evident when one considers the nature of the violence in South Africa. In the case of murders for which the police can establish a mobile, the most common cause is not gangsterism or organized crime, but overly heated arguments / misunderstandings. These arguments frequently involve young drunk men who know each other (often family and friends) and murders usually occur at night on weekends.
The second most common cause is domestic violence.
The need for social prevention
The image is therefore clear. The biggest problem to face is not an organized group of low-key criminals or insurgents who must be defeated, but a normalization of violence that seems to infect interpersonal relationships in this country. Increasing police resources or deploying the army does not solve this problem. We cannot station a policeman or a soldier at every tavern and family reunion in the country. We need policy measures that tackle this distortion of our culture.
There are a handful of programs that attempt to target the social and environmental causes of violence. For example, police stations are supposed to have a youth crime prevention office that works with young volunteers to identify the social causes of violence. In Gauteng, the interventions of these desks included motivational talks and sports activities.
Other more empirically based examples include the Prevention of violence through urban modernization (VPUU). The organization is partnering with the Western Cape government and municipalities to develop safer neighborhoods by improving physical and social infrastructure. The program has had some empirical success, as a 2020 study found that a VPUU intervention in Khayelitsha reduced reports of interpersonal violence in targeted areas.
Overall, however, social prevention policies are scarce and are implemented in small pockets of the country. These are often led by NGOs and foreign donors. Twenty-five years after the adoption of the NCPS, the government does not appear to have a comprehensive and empirically grounded social crime prevention policy.
What can be done?
One of the most effective ways for the government to target the culture of violence experienced by young people in South Africa is through early childhood development (ECD). ECD includes programs that target young children (ages 0-7) as well as their parents to ensure children grow up in environments where they can develop cognitively and emotionally. Examples include a good quality preschool, educational programs for parents, and home interventions by nurses and social workers to help parents adopt healthy child care practices.
Much empirical research has been done on the effects of these types of interventions, although it is true that most of it has been conducted in the United States. A seminal study examined the effects of a program in which nurses made routine household visits in New York City to assist mothers with prenatal health, child care and infant nutrition. Fifteen years later, the researchers found that, compared to a control group, children of mothers visited by nurses had significantly fewer behavioral problems and fewer arrests.
Several other studies have obtained similar results. For example, a find that a combination of quality preschool and home-based nursing interventions in struggling American neighborhoods reduced arrests later in life. More dramatic still, new evidence found intergenerational reductions in crime emanating from ECD programs in the United States, that is, children of people who grew up with ECD services were less likely to behave violently.
How does ECD reduce violence?
The actual mechanisms by which ECD reduces violence are more controversial, although there are several hypothetical channels.
One is psychosocial. Parents in low-income neighborhoods face serious stressors that can lead to maternal depression and violent parenting, both of which can contribute to more aggressive behavior in children later in life.
By teaching parents appropriate childcare strategies, ECD services can thus create healthier family environments and allow children to grow up in stable and loving conditions.
A second potential channel is economical. Search found that some ECD services can lead to a substantial improvement in income later in life. Thus, ECD can reduce violent crime by enabling young people to access non-criminal income generation opportunities.
By addressing the psychosocial needs of marginalized youth growing up in high stress environments and improving their long-term economic prospects, ECD strikes at the heart of some potential causes of criminal violence.
The status of ECD in South Africa
While the South African government has carved out a ECD policy which recognizes the potential of the sector to reduce crime, little has been done to test which ECD services might better target violence in the South African context. Another concern is the fact that the ECD sector is in deep crisis and therefore any potential it might have for violence prevention is disappearing.
The Covid-19 pandemic, which forced ECD providers to shut down for several months, has been seriously damaging in this regard. The incompetence of the Department of Social Development, which is responsible for the ECD, certainly did not help matters. They poorly communicated with ECD providers during the pandemic and halted the sector’s small operational grant during the first lockdown. The department also failed prioritize ECD agents for vaccination.
As a result, many ECD providers could not afford to reopen. In July 2020, one month after the mandatory reopening of DPE services, only 12% of children who had attended ECD services before the lockdown had returned.
However, the government has proven itself capable of supporting increased access to ECD. Government initiatives such as the Community Work Program, which employs people to do socially useful work in their own communities, is widely involved in the provision of ECD services. And at the national level, Nids-Cram data found that the proportion of South African children accessing ECD services roughly quadrupled between 2002 and 2018.
While much of this progress has been wiped out by the pandemic, the state should be able to revive the sector if it provides urgent relief and avoids unnecessary delays in its current support to the sector.
Beyond this, researchers need to analyze what specific ECD services can be deployed for violence prevention in South Africa and the state needs to guide policy in accordance with this evidence.
The criminal justice system and the military cannot be our only stopover in dealing with the epidemic of violence. DM