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Crime may torpedo Cyril's economic revival drive

President Cyril Ramaphosa.
President Cyril Ramaphosa.
Image: Esa Alexander

President Cyril Ramaphosa used his State of the Nation Address (Sona) to outline his relatively new government's action plan.

Ramaphosa mainly focused on economic growth, investment and job creation.

He also announced substantial investments in education, health and housing. But there was very limited focus on crime.

The preventive strategies he outlined were somewhat stale. Most, especially those related to policing and gender-based violence, have been tried before.

They yielded few positive results and there is no evidence to suggest that they'll work any better now.

This, in a country whose levels of violent crimes such as gender-based violence and violence against children is alarming.

Ramaphosa's robust plans for the economy have the potential of reducing violent crime in the future.

But, importantly, existing levels of violent crime can severely undermine his government's efforts to stimulate growth, increase investment and reduce poverty. There's an urgent need for crime-prevention strategies.

Many of the determinants of violent crime in SA are beyond the police's control.

Crime and violence are shaped by a variety and combination of societal factors such as inequality, societal conformity to use of violence, and alcohol and drug abuse. Despite this reality, the entire mandate of crime control has fallen squarely on the shoulders of the SAPS.

The police have developed various community policing approaches since the mid-1990s, like the creation of community policing forums, all designed to work with communities to address crime's societal drivers.

Unfortunately, there's little evidence that these interventions have reduced crime rates, solely because crime-riddled communities don't trust the police. Another problem is that most community policing strategies are imposed on residents by police without proper buy-in. Only certain groups, such as neighbourhood watches, are actively encouraged to participate.

Ramaphosa spoke of a "new SAPS community policing strategy", but without major changes, it's unlikely to be effective than previous efforts.

Community policing interventions in some US cities, such as Boston, and even in some parts of SA, such as Khayelitsha, have shown how it can be done.

Building equal and mutually beneficial partnerships between police and communities is an effective way to fight crime.

Sadly, those areas in SA which take this approach do so in an ad hoc basis.

A recent judgment by the equality court found the allocation of police resources in the Western Cape was skewed in favour of wealthier areas with lower crime rates.

It's highly likely that this trend occurs in other provinces as well. This state of affairs has reinforced established patterns of poverty, inequality and violent crime.

Ramaphosa said more resources would be allocated for policing, but he was silent on which were the main target areas. If priority is given to crime-infested areas, this may help to improve community-police relations.

The Sona address underscored that "building a better SA" requires a collective action. Indeed, this is imperative in preventing crime. But the government needs to ensure that effective structures and mechanisms are in place to allow for such collective involvement.

- Lamb is director of safety and violence initiative at UCT

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