Global Affairs

Rising child murder rates in South Africa intensify parole reform efforts

The South African capital of Cape Town has suffered a worrying increase in the number of murders recorded, especially in those of children and women. This has sparked nationwide fury and repeated calls for action from the government and the police.

The anger was initially evoked by the murder of seven-year-old Tazne van Wyk. The child’s body was found in a storm water drain a couple of weeks after her disappearance. The suspected murderer has a prior record, having a history of violent offences, including kidnapping and murdering another child. He had previously been released on parole. According to the department of correctional services, the suspect had served half of a 10-year sentence when he was granted parole.

There were multiple other instances of previous offenders on parole committing murder. This includes the case of seven-year-old Reagen Gertse, who went missing, only for her body to be found on a farm a week later. Her killer was a distant relative of hers, who had previously been released on parole in November last year.

Community activist Fadiel Adams organized a hunger strike to protest against the lack of action taken by the government in combating the recent increase of child murders in the Western Cape province. The hunger strike lasted 6 days, ending with Adams handing a memorandum to the President’s secretary.

In an interview given during the hunger strike, Mr Adams stresses the immediate need for change: “We need change in the communities, in the way policing is conducted, in the justice system, in everything. There’s no accountability for anything; when a murderer gets arrested, the state will give him bail multiple times”.

“The president needs to commit to making a change in the Cape Flats”, he adds.

His words depict an environment filled with fear and concerns over the population’s safety, as he outlined the extra measures people are taking to keep themselves and their families safe.

 “We’ve taken our kids out of the parks because they are too dangerous. We let them play in the streets, but that became too dangerous and now they’re playing in the yard and they get killed anyway. Where do we go with our children after this?”

Members of the local community have expressed their anger by setting fire to buildings believed to be frequented by neighbourhood criminals, including the person accused of murdering Tazne. This action was taken when Tazne’s killer appeared in court.

When asked about this, Mr Adams said that “their reaction was mild in comparison to the violence this community has already faced.”

President Cyril Ramaphosa apologised to the community and stated that the man accused of murdering seven-year-old Tazne van Wyk should never have been given parole. This declaration was coupled with promises that urgent action would be taken to remedy the situation. The President likened the figures for violence against women and children to those of a country at war. His words were echoed by the police minister, Bheki Cele, who claimed that the country “borders close to a war zone while there is peace”.

It appears that South African authorities are mostly in agreement that the current parole system has some serious issues. In the current system, parole is almost always granted to prisoners serving life sentences. Life imprisonment without the possibility of parole is only possible in very special cases. Anyone wishing to be granted parole must undergo an assessment and rehabilitation process. Albert Frtiz, the politician in charge of community safety in the Western Cape province, has admitted that the criminal justice system had failed its residents, adding that the parole system is plagued by “profound issues”.

Justice Minister Ronald Lomola showed a more nuanced response to the crisis. While he admitted there were flaws in the system, he also claimed that most people released on parole are reintegrated back into society.

Mr Lamola has summoned an urgent meeting this month to discuss the state of the parole system. He promised that officials will be examining all paroles that had been granted this financial year in the Western Cape province, to identify any failures to comply with the process.

The World Health Organization estimates that the rate of child homicide in South Africa is double the global estimated rate.

The WHO further claims that “the high rate [of child homicide] in South Africa reflects the country’s very high general homicide rate and children’s vulnerable position in South African society”.

The organisation points to the need for “policies and programmes that effectively address” the endemic problem of child abuse.

Information released by the South African Police Service points to a disproportionate effect of crime on the population, as most victims of it are “mainly poorer South Africans”.

However, the issues that South Africa is facing at the moment extend beyond child homicide. The speech given by the President almost mirrored another one he gave last year after a 19-year-old woman was murdered by a postal worker. The accused was handed 3 life sentences, after he had lured the woman into the mailroom of a post office, raped her twice and bludgeoned her to death, before setting fire to her body.

South Africa has had a notably high rate of murders for a considerable amount of time, holding the fifth-highest murder rate in the world in 2015.

Sadly, these numbers have only increased since. There was a 3% increase in murders and a 4% increase in attempted murders in 2019.

This amounts to an average of almost 58 murders per day – the highest murder level in at least a decade, according to an annual crime statistics report released in parliament. For reference, the UK had less than two murders per day in the same year, making the South African average about 32 times higher than the UK average.

South Africa also has a markedly high number of women being murdered by men. According to official data, there is a woman murdered every three hours in South Africa – five times higher than the global average. Last year also saw an increase of almost 5% in sexual offences.

According to a report released by the Department of Safety and Security of the Republic of South Africa, the main cause for the high incidence of violent crime is “a culture of violence and criminality”. This culture is sustained by a number of factors, including inequality, poverty, unemployment, social exclusion, the vulnerability of young people and weaknesses of the criminal justice system.

This is backed by crime researcher Eldred de Klerk, who concluded that poverty directly impacts crime levels. He also argued that glaring disparities between rich and poor are factors that lead to crime.

However, data released by the South African Police Service paints a somewhat more optimistic picture, showing an increase of 19% in sexual offences detected as a result of police action, which they attribute to “active policing in this specific area”.

SA Women Fight Back has started a petition in the name of Tazne Van Wyk calling for harsher punishment for crimes against children and women, and strongly opposes bail for the accused suspects. The petition has so far gathered more than 66,000 votes, just ten-thousand short of its goal. The organisation describes itself as “a community of united women who network to bring about legislative change and support for all women and children in South Africa”.

Ana Silvia Gheorghe

Ana is a Senior Global Affairs Editor for the Oxford Blue for HT21. She is going into her third year studying Philosophy, Politics and Economics at St Edmund Hall. When not in Oxford, she lives in Bucharest, Romania.