Crime in South Africa – what the official stats don’t tell you

Statistics South Africa has published its latest Victims of Crime (VoC) survey, showing how thousands of crimes go unreported in the country.

The survey gives supplementary perspective to the latest official crime statistics published by the South African Police Service (SAPS) in November, which showed a decrease in criminal activity over the last quarter – owing largely to the Covid-19 pandemic and lockdown regulations in effect over the period.

South Africa’s official crime stats are based on incidents and crimes reported to police stations, as well as crimes discovered through police action. The data can only tell us about the crimes that go through official processes, and do not necessarily give a reflection of the true crime levels in the country.

The VoC survey, meanwhile, reflects criminal activity from victims’ experiences, revealing large discrepancies between experiences of crime and reported crime in South Africa – with a large number of crimes going unreported, and thus not included in the SAPS’ official data.

For example, crime data shows that in 2019/20 an estimated 1.2 million incidences of housebreaking occurred, affecting 891,000 households.

However, the VoC survey shows that only 52% of households that experienced housebreaking actually reported it to the police – with the ‘real’ tally of break-ins likely closer to 2.3 million.

In many categories, crime experienced by South Africans shows and upward trend – in stark contrast to the number of reported crimes decreasing.

This trend of under- or non-reporting is present in every other crime category.

An estimated 169,000 incidences of home robberies occurred in 2019/20, affecting 139,000 households. Only 55% of the victims reported it to the police.

Theft of motor vehicles was experienced by 82,000 households. Here, more households reported the crime – around 79% – but this still represents a significant under-reporting which would not be made clear in the official statistics.

There were a total of 72,000 incidences of deliberate damaging, burning, or destruction of residential dwellings affecting 52,000 households. Just over 55% of those affected reported the crime to the police.

An estimated 99,000 hijackings occurred. A total of 78% of the victims reported the crime to the police.

Individual crime levels in South Africa

The same trend is also seen with individual crimes – however, in these cases the percentage of crimes that get reported to police is even lower.

Of an estimated 1.1 million incidences of theft of personal property that occurred in 2019/20, only 38% reported it to the police.

Where 451,000 people experienced street robbery, only 42% of the victims reported it. With assault, there were 294,000 incidences, but only 42% of the victims of assault reported the crime to the police.

Worst of all, only 26% of an estimated 1.4 million fraud victims reported it to authorities.

Here, a larger number of these fraud incidences were attributed to advance-fee fraud (e.g. the R99 credit/debit card scam, 419 scams), which often target vulnerable communities. Here, under-reporting can be explained by victims not realising they were defrauded, or feeling shame or guilt for being scammed.

Feeling of safety

The survey also investigates how safe people feel, similar to international polls gauging the same feelings.

When asked about how safe they feel walking around their neighbourhoods alone during the day or at night, citizens feel safer than they did last year.

A large majority (86.6%) of survey respondents said they felt safe walking alone in their neighbourhood during the day, while 41.8% felt safe walking alone in their neighbourhood during the night. Both figures increased from 2018/19.

Males, in general, felt safer walking alone in their neighbourhood. Similarly, rural residents had a greater feeling of safety walking alone in their areas when it is dark than residents in urban areas.

Households in rural areas were more likely to have knowledge of their neighbours’ names than those in urban areas. Eastern Cape had the highest proportions of households who know their neighbours’ names, while Gauteng had the least.

Overall, there was no significant increase in the number of households who would ask any of their neighbours to watch their house if they were going away between 2015/16 (84.1%) and 2019/20 (85.8%).

Read: South Africa’s latest crime stats – everything you need to know

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Crime in South Africa – what the official stats don’t tell you