Saturday, July 26, 2008

South Africans Have No More Sympathy for Criminals

The attitudes of South Africans to crime have hardened considerably since 2001. This is one of the significant findings from a victimisation study undertaken by the ISS at the end of 2007.

The survey measures both actual levels of crime and perceptions about safety.

The results revealed that despite actual overall levels of victimisation having decreased since 2003, most adult South Africans believe that crime is increasing and more people believe this to be the case than they did in 2003.

This may be explained, at least in part, by the fact that while overall crime levels have dropped, robbery, including home robbery, has increased. This is according to both the victimisation survey and police statistics. The survey results also tell us that burglary and robbery are the two kinds of crime people worry about most overall. Probably because these crimes take place in the home, where you should feel safe and where an intrusion is a violation of far greater magnitude psychologically than if one is robbed on the street. Both are frightening, but the thought of someone entering your home to steal your possessions and may rape, murder or torture you if you are there, probably has a greater impact on perceptions of crime and safety than other types of crime.

Since South Africans believe that crime is increasing, it is interesting to see how our views on what motivates crime have changed since 2003.

In 2003, 39 percent of respondents believed that greed was the motive for violent crimes, and 36 percent believed this was the motive for property crimes.

In 2007 the percentage of South Africans who believed that violent crimes were motivated by greed had increased to 44 percent, and 43 percent held the view that greed was the motivation behind property crimes.

Correspondingly, the number of people who believed that property crimes and violent crimes were motivated by ‘real need’ decreased from 30 per cent for property crimes, and 18 percent for violent crimes in 2003, to 24 per cent for property crimes and 17 percent for violent crimes.

This suggests that those who may previously have thought that crime was motivated by real need have changed their views.
They now believe that the criminals who murder and steal are driven by greed. Since ‘greed’ implies that the person being greedy wants more than they actually need to survive, it is not surprising then that there has been a corresponding decline in the number of South Africans who believe that investing in social development is the solution to reducing crime.

Whereas in 2003 60 percent of respondents felt that government should spend money on social development to make their areas safe from property crime, 51 percent believed that was the solution in 2007.

For violent crime the drop was far greater – from 62 percent of people who felt that spending money on social development would make their area safer from crime, to 36 per cent. When one looks at the number of people who believe that punitive actions are the solution to crime it becomes even more apparent that attitudes have hardened considerably.

At least 13 per cent of those who had previously believed that social development was the solution would now rather see criminals being punished. If we had seen an increase in the number of people who believe that greed motivates crime, but no corresponding increase in the number who would like to see a more retributive response, the finding might not have been so remarkable.

The fact that the two indicators are reinforcing one another leaves little room for doubt that more South Africans want to see a strong retributive response to crime.

Interestingly enough, the number of respondents who believed that more policing is the solution has not changed significantly.
This shows that the most significant change is from believing that addressing social problems is the solution to believing in harsher punishment.

While most South Africans (more than 60 percent) in 2003 and 2007 are doing nothing at all to protect themselves or their household against crime, the hardening of attitudes is also evident in the fact that this year, for the first time a small percentage of respondents said they had joined a vigilante group to protect themselves.

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