The most violent metros in South Africa: Cape Town vs Joburg vs Durban vs Nelson Mandela Bay

The South African Cities Network has published its latest State of South African Cities report, detailing the socioeconomic and development challenges faced by the country’s largest metros.

The report is compiled every five years, and the 2022 release covers the 2020/21 financial year, assessing the progress – or lack thereof – being made in the cities of Cape Town, Johannesburg, Ekurhuleni, Ethekwini, Tshwane, Manguang, Msunduzi, Nelson Mandela Bay and Buffalo City.

A key factor that comes under the microscope in the report is safety and security.

Because the data is based on the 2020/21 statistical reporting year, the data does carry a major caveat: the statistics are swayed by the Covid-19 pandemic and lockdown which impacted criminal activity and reported crimes that took place during the period.

Over this period, mobility was hamstrung by the regulations, and many people stayed home. Because of this, most crime categories saw a drop in reported crimes.

This was a sentiment that featured regularly during the SAPS’ own crime stats reports in 2020 and 2021. However, in the latest crime stats briefing, it was clear that this trend was reverting, with the latest numbers showing a steady climb almost across the board.

The SACN acknowledged this in its report, noting that the reporting period was an anomaly. However, despite this, “South African cities continue to face crime and violence challenges that require the attention and intervention of all of society.”

“The pandemic affected urban safety trends and crime statistics because of the lockdown declared under the Disaster Management Act, which restricted movement, closed industries, introduced curfews and banned the sale or transportation of alcohol,” it said.

“These lockdown restrictions played a role in reducing most types of crime, especially during Level Four and Level Five lockdowns. However, with the easing of restrictions, the upward trends in serious violent crime continued.

“The distraction of enforcing lockdown regulations and the impact of the pandemic on police members also meant that there were fewer policing operations aimed at removing illegal firearms from circulation or targeting organised crime syndicates. Consequently, cities can anticipate further increases in murder, robbery or gang violence in the coming years.”

Most violent cities

According to the SACN, murder numbers and murder rates are acknowledged locally and internationally as a suitable measure for levels of violence in a city. However, because crimes are reported at stations – and there may be one station serving several areas, one area with several stations – it is difficult to derive true numbers from reported stats.

Using raw numbers – the total murders reported at these stations – is also problematic, as they do not account for population sizes.

For example, in 2020/21, Mangaung recorded 225 murders over the period – less than half the 659 murders recorded in Tshwane.

While this might suggest that residents have a higher risk of being murdered in Tshwane than in Mangaung, given that Tshwane’s population is four times higher than that of Mangaung, the average resident of Mangaung is actually 1.5 times more likely to be murdered than the average resident of Tshwane.

Similarly, Cape Town recorded 3,074 murders – or three times the 865 murders in Nelson Mandela Bay – but its population is nearly four times higher, giving a murder rate of 67 per 100,000 people compared to 71 per 100,000 for Nelson Mandela Bay.

To give a better picture of violence levels in the major metros, the SACN determined which police station areas fall within the relevant municipal boundaries, added up the relevant police stations’ figures for each of the crime types for the last 16 years, and weighted these against the most accurate population estimates for those areas.

This gives the most accurate representation of murder rates among the major metros. Using this method, the most violent cities in the country are:

# Metro Murders per 100,000
1 Nelson Mandela Bay 71
2 Cape Town 67
3 Msunduzi 54
4 eThekwini 47
5 Buffalo City 42
National 34
6 Joburg 27
7 Manguang 26
7 Ekurhuleni 26
9 Tshwane 18

While the City of Joburg has gained a reputation for being one of the most violent cities in the country, this is usually tied to high number of reported crimes in the metro. When accounting for the city’s high and dense population – expressed as a figure per 100,000 residents – it ends up being on the lower end of the scale.

Cape Town and Nelson Mandela Bay, meanwhile, have had consistently high rates of violence over the last 10 years, with the latter claiming and overtaking the former as the country’s most violent city as at the latest SACN report.

Growing concern

South Africa’s national murder rate showed a dip in 2020/21, likely because of the Covid-19 pandemic and lockdowns.

“Quarterly crime statistics in 2021/22 show a continuation of the upward trajectory for most violent crimes. These increases are likely to continue in the medium term because the drivers of violence have not been addressed – and may have been exacerbated by the pandemic,” the SACN said.

These drivers are far more pronounced in areas experiencing rapid urbanisation and include:

  • Socioeconomic deterioration;
  • Growing inequality and food insecurity;
  • Political corruption, which results in lower police and criminal-justice performance, leading to declining public trust in the government;
  • An influx of firearms into high-risk areas; and
  • Increasing levels of intergroup conflict, such as gang and taxi violence.

The SANC noted that different factors are likely to be driving increases in murders in different geographical localities.

Murder rates are often driven by residential robbery or hijacking in wealthy areas with high economic activity, but by increased gang activity or conflict in poorer urban areas, it said. However, they also share some common factors such as gender-based violence and femicide and other forms of interpersonal violence due to arguments.

“When planning a response, what is important is to identify the specific factors at play and to understand each city’s uniqueness. Therefore, as recommended in previous reports, crime prevention resources are used most effectively when very narrowly targeted to specific localities, populations and crime factors,” the SACN said.


Read: Cape Town, Joburg, Durban and Gqeberha among the most violent cities in the world

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The most violent metros in South Africa: Cape Town vs Joburg vs Durban vs Nelson Mandela Bay