Fight inequality and poverty to defeat crime

The recently released crime statistics show that there is a direct correlation between poverty and contact crimes such as burglary and damage to public property, writes NTANDO MADUNA

Hilary Clinton in a recent interview with Britain’s Channel 4 was asked what she did wrong in her campaign. Her response was revealing. She suggested that despite her credentials in the system, as a former first spouse, a former Senator and Secretary of State, she was simply not in touch with the anger felt by a large amount of the electorate.

While she emphasised the enormous support she received from women voters, she admitted that as a member of the system, the political elite, she was not in touch with the daily experience of ordinary Americans. Needless to say, other factors were also mentioned by Clinton.

As the ANC prepares for its 54th National Conference, a conference that is likely to decide the next President of South Africa, it is useful for us to ask whether South Africans, like Americans, are also angry. Are we an angry nation?

We may suggest that one of the most striking ways in which South Africans express their anger is through crime. The recent crime statistics, therefore, give us an indication of the level of anger by South Africans. Yet before we delve into the statistics and see what they tell us about South Africa’s anger it is maybe good to first put this anger in context, for anger is only a symptom of a deeper problem.

In this respect, the work of Irish economist Morgan Kelly is useful. Kelly explains that violent crime or contact crime is often a direct result of inequality. In other words, in countries or communities where crimes such as murder, rape, and assault are high; it is often because inequality in those countries is high as well. Brazil and Colombia stand out as Latin American examples.

On the other hand, there is a direct link between property crime and poverty, suggests Kelly. Where break-ins or malicious damage to property is rampant, poverty is often an indicator of the cause of such crime. Therefore, when one drives around in our townships and sees the damage to communal property such as parks, community halls, shops, it is not because of the inequality that exists within that community but often evidence of poverty.

We would not want to rule out completely the role that substance abuse plays in property crime. For example, communities suffering from the scourge of drug abuse know all too well about the break-ins and the copper theft or even theft of any kind. Therefore, while we could link poverty to property crime, we can also suggest that poverty feeds substances abuse. Poverty does not cause substance abuse, because even the wealthy abuse drugs and alcohol, but poverty does make it easier for one to begin experimenting with drugs and recovery is much more difficult.

What all of this suggests is that crime is a social challenge rather than a security one.

The recent statistics presented by Police Minister Fikile Mbalula to Parliament tell of an increase in these contact or violent crimes of murder, attempted murder, and aggravated robbery. We should approach the statistics on sexual crimes with caution as we know that the methodology used in compiling these statistics is based on what is reported to the South African Police Service. As a result, we know that often sexual crimes go unreported.

Yet if we were to focus on crimes such as murder, an increase of nearly 2% in the last year, attempted murder, an increase of a half a percent, while aggravated robbery increased by over 6%, we can see the anger expressed by South Africans because of inequality.

The significant indicators in property crime are the increase in burglary to non-residential properties, for example, shops, businesses, by nearly a percent as well as the nearly 9% increase in stock theft again points to the challenge of poverty rather than inequality. For example, the crime statistics indicate an increase in burglary in residential areas in the provinces of the Northern Cape, Eastern Cape, Mpumalanga and the North-West. These are provinces that have a challenge with widespread poverty.

If one were to look at murder statistics, the large provincial economies feature tops, with KwaZulu-Natal, the Western Cape and Gauteng featuring prominently recording increases in murder rates.  Added to these three is Mpumalanga where the murder rate increased by 11%, the highest in the country, but also possibly the province with a high Gini coefficient. Gini coefficient being the measurement of inequality in a society.

It would, of course, have been good to judge the increase or decrease in the levels of inequality but that data is not readily available. At the same time, we have heard of the widespread levels of poverty in our country given recently released figures by Statistics South Africa. Yet what is to be done?

The first conclusion is easy to reach based on Morgan Kelly’s work. The more you defeat poverty the less property crime you will experience. The more you lessen the gap between the rich and the poor or between males and females the less contact crime such as murder and sexual violence. As a result, when we talk about the triple challenges of poverty, unemployment, and inequality it is not rhetoric that is being sprouted but rather these challenges have a direct effect on the fibre of our communities.

A few years ago, South African economist Haroon Bhorat did a study on the levels of inequality and the impact of social grants. The evidence was overwhelming. If we wish to tackle poverty, but more so inequality, then we have to up our game on social security. But social grants are not just money being paid to recipients, albeit important.

Social security must entail more than just the small amount paid to grant beneficiaries. South Africans have somewhat consoled themselves that because in the three years – between 2016 to 2018 – nearly a trillion Rands would have been spent on social grants it means our social security system is working. Yes, this trillion Rands does pump more money into the economy and assist people out of poverty and narrows inequality, as Bhorat’s study proved. But we must ask some other questions about social security as well.

For example, the health subsidies that government pays into the health sector in South Africa, who do these subsidies really benefit? The rich, who already have medical aid, or the poor who have no health insurance? The evidence is clear that government subsidises the wealthy more on health than it does the poor. Hence the need for the immediate implementation of the National Health Insurance scheme. Health must be included in the social security system. A poor person must be guaranteed a certain set of health services paid for by the state.

Another example is public transport. Often public transport, either owned by private companies or the state, is subsidised through private funds. Yet the wealthier areas often have access to world-class public transport services whereas the poor struggle to get to work or look for employment. An unemployed person already has to fork out money for public transport even before he or she gets a job.

This glaring inequality in public transport is not more visible than in a city such as Cape Town where the suburbs in the shadow of the mountain, the wealthiest of suburbs, have access to world class public bus services whereas poor areas such as Khayelitsha and Mitchells Plain have to depend mostly on taxis, which are not subsidised by the state.

Security, health, education, transport, food, clothing, among other essential needs on Maslow’s hierarchy of needs must be part of the social security system of the South African state. Unless we address these basics, our people will remain angry, our economy will remain stagnant and crime will simply increase.

Maduna is ANC Youth League Spokesperson for the Harry Gwala Region in KwaZulu-Natal  

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