Country Listing

South Africa Table of Contents

South Africa

Crime and Violence

Patterns of crime and violence in South Africa have often reflected political developments, especially since the 1950s. Crime surged to alarming proportions after a new constitution was implemented in 1984, granting limited parliamentary representation to coloureds and to Asians, but not to blacks. The number of reported murders in South Africa rose to 10,000 in 1989 and to 11,000 in 1990. The incidence of assault, rape, and armed robbery showed similar increases. Police estimated that 22,000 people died in crime-related violence in the fifteen months ending in February 1991. By 1992 South Africa had one of the world's highest crime rates, on a per capita basis.

Waves of serious violence swept through many townships around Johannesburg and in Natal Province, where the rivalry between the Inkatha Freedom Party (IFP) and the African National Congress (ANC) resulted in several hundred--some estimated more than 1,000--deaths each year in the late 1980s and the early 1990s. Officials estimated that 12,000 citizens (and 2,000 SADF troops) were involved in ANC-IFP clashes in the early 1990s.

White right-wing terrorists added to the crime rate as they were increasingly marginalized from the political process. Groups such as the White Liberation Army, the White Republican Army, the Boer Republican Army, the White Wolves, and the Order of the Boer Nation claimed responsibility for more than thirty-five bombings. Some of these groups formed an alliance known as the White People's Front in 1992 and threatened further violence as the political transition continued.

Community Response

Dealing with rising levels of crime and violence became a major public preoccupation in the 1990s and resulted in a variety of ad hoc security arrangements and alliances. For example, many organizations and a few individuals hired private security guards for protection. Civilians volunteered to monitor street crime in several turbulent townships. The ANC, after initially opposing these groups as "vigilantes," formed its own Self-Defense Units to help protect ANC supporters in the townships. Their political rivals in IFP strongholds responded by forming Zulu Self-Protection Units, especially in and around workers' hostels.

During the apartheid era, black South Africans had been legally barred from owning guns, but many whites considered gun ownership a normal defensive measure and a cherished right. Gun owners were legally required to register their weapons with the police, and a record 123,000 firearms were registered in 1990. By 1992 more than 2.5 million firearms had been registered nationwide. Police officials estimated that one-half of all white families owned at least one firearm, and at least 100,000 white households owned more than five registered weapons. Many more people were arming themselves illegally, according to police estimates.

Weapons thefts were extremely common. More than 7,700 firearms were reported stolen during 1990 alone. More than 5,000 guns were turned in to the police during a six-week amnesty in late 1990, and another 1,900, during a second amnesty in 1992. Although firearms and explosives were the cause of more than one-half of the deaths in the early 1990s, spears, knives, and axes--so-called Zulu traditional weapons, which were legal--were responsible for about 20 percent of violent deaths.

Data as of May 1996