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Hands Across the Sea — Linthicum’s Letter for September 2013

The Eastern Cape is South Africa’s premier killing zone
By Tom Linthicum

My wife and I live in the most murderous province of South Africa – the Eastern Cape.

The country’s annual crime statistics, released Sept. 19, showed that for the fifth consecutive year, the Eastern Cape is South Africa’s premier killing zone. Between April 2012 and March 2013, 3,344 murders were reported, a 5.8 percent increase over the previous period.

Despite having less than 13 percent of the nation’s population and large stretches of rural territory far from the major urban centers of Johannesburg, Durban and Cape Town, this province’s major industry has become homicide.

The national murder rate increased by 0.6 percent during the same period. South Africa, a country of about 51 million, had 16,259 murders reported during that time.

I know this because of aggressive and detailed reporting about the national crime statistics by national and local newspapers and other media, despite the best efforts of government spin doctors to convince the press and public that up is down.

“This is a story of success,” a smiling Riah Phiyega, the National Police Commissioner, said in releasing the numbers and proceeding to accentuate every positive she could imagine.

But the press wasn’t buying. As officials wrapped the latest statistics into 10-year averages which looked much better, savvy reporters pointed out that while crime rates indeed fell between 2003 and 2006 that was due largely to the hiring of thousands of additional officers during that time.

Reporters cited nongovernment experts, such as Gareth Newman of the Institute of Security Studies, who said, “It is worrying because our murder rate is already found and a half times higher than the international average. Now there are two more people being murdered on average every day than the previous year.”

Reporters also cited statistics showing that public violence increased nationally by 55 percent during the survey period. Police attributed this to labor unrest, socioeconomic issues and alcohol and drug abuse.

In particular, violent protests are at their highest point in three years and contributed to the grim statistics. In response to a question, the national police commissioner said the killings by police of 34 protesters at the Marikana platinum mine last year were classified as murders.

On the same day Phiyega made that statement, the commission investigating those killings said it had found evidence that South African police lied and falsified documents to cover up the truth about what happened.

The no-holds barred coverage of the crime statistics came despite mounting pressure from President Jacob Zuma and his political party, the African National Congress, which has ruled South Africa since the end of apartheid in 1994, for more positive news coverage and for the press to do its part in building the “new” South Africa.

But even with elections on the horizon, experts doubt the crime statistics will have a major political impact. Why? Because crime statistics were “depoliticized” in 2009 after the country’s safety and security minister said he feared that the release of the statistics would have major political fallout.

Later that year, the national police chief imposed a moratorium on releasing the statistics, arguing that the numbers only helped criminals and “were used for political bashing.”

Uh, right. What some call “political bashing” is what others call free speech, also known as a key ingredient of the robust debate that is part of the democratic process.

At any rate, the crime statistics have been “depoliticized,” so rather than getting access to monthly or even quarterly detailed statistics from local police, South African citizens get two sets of crime numbers annually, according to the Mail & Guardian: the statistics released by the national police every September and a summary of anti-crime operations during the holiday season, usually released in January.

Local police may release other information if and when they choose. Their practices vary widely.

And how is this system working? Probably pretty well from the ANC’s point of view.

In terms of political debate leading up to next year’s elections, “In the white population, maybe crime levels will come up [for discussion] but even there, issues of corruption and governance will be more important, “ political analyst Sipho Seepe told the Mail & Guardian. “Jobs will be a big issue, social grants will be there…whether crime levels go up and down will not part of it.”

Undaunted, the press keeps plugging away. Our local weekly newspaper, Grocott’s Mail, which takes its community coverage responsibilities very seriously, promises its own detailed report on the crime stats next week.

As long as this kind of reporting continues, readers will at least know everything that can be known. How or if they decide to act on that information is up to them.

Best to all.
Tom Linthicum
You can write to Tom at lthomas155@aol.com.

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