Freedom and its limits amid high crime and violence: A Challenge for South African Cities

by Siphelele Ngobese
27 April 2023

South Africa is a country with a rich history of struggle for freedom and an inclusive society under democracy. Despite the progress made in the two decades since the transition to a Constitutional democracy, the country still faces many significant challenges. While the Constitution, is lauded among the most well-developed in the world and which centres education, housing and basic services as human rights and which enshrines the freedoms of movement and personal safety; these remain elusive for many. The high levels of crime and violence pose a direct check to citizens enjoying and exercising their fundamental freedoms and inalienable rights.


There is more to cities than providing basic services…


Many policy and action frameworks, like the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), place cities and local governments at the centre of creating a better, more inclusive world. Thus the issue of safety in urban areas is of particular concern as it affects not only the freedom of individual citizens to live, work and play without fear but presents a developmental challenge. With crime and violence concentrated in urban areas, cities cannot play an important role in driving sustainable and inclusive development. Neither can they facilitate productive urban economies that support upward mobility and sustainable livelihoods to stem extreme poverty and inequality.


Urban safety in South Africa is a complex issue that cannot be addressed with a one-size-fits-all approach. Factors such as poverty, inequality, unemployment, family disruption and social exclusion all contribute to the problem of crime and violence. Space or the built environment is another key factor: the untransformed apartheid spatial form continues to entrench social and economic exclusion and is an enabler of crime. To address these issues, which manifest differently in each city based on the local context, requires a multifaceted approach involving government, civil society, communities and the private sector (‘all-of-society’).


The South African government has taken a number of steps to address urban safety, including the National Development Plan (NDP), which mentions creating safer and more cohesive communities. The NDP outlines key interventions, including the strengthening of community policing, the expansion of closed-circuit television (CCTV) surveillance, and the implementation of preventive strategies such as crime prevention through environmental design (CPTED) and social interventions. The NDP’s intentions are articulated in greater detail in subsequent policy pieces such as the Integrated Urban Development Framework (IUDF), the White Paper on Safety and Security, and its implementation plan, the Inclusive Crime and Violence Prevention Strategy (ICVPS). More recently, in light of the high incidence of gender-based violence, there is also the National Strategic Plan on GBV and Femicide (NSP).


The effectiveness of policy interventions is threatened by a number of challenges. One of them is the lack of resources, both human and financial, available to local government to implement core principles that focus not just on law enforcement but positive social, economic and spatial impacts. The same is true for the National government which has seen a shortage of police officers and reduced investment in crime intelligence and longer-term, preventive strategies.


Civil society and the private sector have also played an important role in addressing urban safety challenges in South Africa. Community-based organisations and NGOs have implemented a range of crime-prevention strategies, including neighbourhood watch programs, community patrols, and social interventions such as child and youth development programs. While the private sector has also invested in CCTV surveillance and security services, this is mainly in high-income areas. While CCTV has its place, an important critique is that where such security investments are made and thus the distribution of pockets of safety, tends to follow the fault lines of historical exclusion and segregation. The poor and marginalized continue to face disproportionate exposure to crime and violence. The direct impact of CCTV on crime reduction and therefore whether it is worth the investment also remains a big question.[1]


However, the role of civil society and the private sector in addressing urban safety could benefit from better coordination and collaboration with the government in its various spheres. Closer cooperation and partnership between these sectors would achieve more effective, inclusive and sustainable outcomes. Central to effective partnership would have to be recognising the underlying social, spatial and economic issues contributing to crime and violence. Poverty, inequality, and unemployment are all factors that can lead to social exclusion and a sense of hopelessness, which in turn can lead to criminal and/or antisocial behaviours. Addressing these issues requires a long-term and comprehensive approach involving addressing the root causes.


There are good examples and ‘pockets of excellence’ where local governments in partnership with all-of-society actors are testing and piloting such alternative approaches. The City of Johannesburg has a focus on public parks and tapping into various community partnerships to make these important spaces active and sustainable. Ekhaya Park has been developed into a safe space for women and children. eThekwini Municipality partners with local business forums, academic institutions, other government agencies and local communities to upskill and include homeless persons living in public spaces like city parks. Their interventions provide services based on needs be it drug rehabilitation, family reunification or skills development for employment readiness.


While the challenge is in securing funding to scale these up and sustain them, a big win has been in terms of cities connecting and learning to partner more effectively with those who are investors, local experts and passionate community actors. Through partnering, some of the problems related to funding can be overcome.


Crime and violence are a direct check to enjoying freedom in South Africa. Urban safety is a complex and multifaceted challenge with the potential to overshadow all progress made in the past two decades. Much more needs to be done towards safer, integrated and more cohesive communities. A coordinated and collaborative approach involving government, civil society, academia and the private sector is needed to address the underlying social, spatial and economic issues that contribute to crime and violence. As we near 3 decades of democratic dispensation, the promise of an egalitarian society is under threat. Part of the solution lies in collaborating and cooperating more. By working together, we can create a safer and more prosperous and peaceful future for all.


[1] Urban Safety Brief on CCTV and Crime Prevention, SACN, 2022

Siphelele Ngobese is a Senior Researcher at the South African Cities Network. To contact her email