Skyrocketing murder rates in South Africa, with many children as victims

NOS NewsSaturday, 20:21

  • Ellen van Gelder

    correspondent Afrika

  • Ellen van Gelder

    correspondent Afrika

Every so often South Africa experiences a tragedy so horrific that the country wonders again how it became so violent. The last was more than five months ago, when 4-year-old Bokgabo Poo disappeared from a playground.

Her mother Tsholofelo Poo tells the story from the sofa in her living room in the Wattville township near Johannesburg. How her daughter was playing with a friend in the playground around the corner and how a man gave the boy money to buy a candy and stayed behind with her daughter, who then disappeared.

Less than 24 hours later, a child’s leg was found half-buried in a garden. Tsholofelo went to look and realized it was her daughter. “I looked at the leg and one of the toenails was slightly bent. I knew it was Bokgabo. I fell to the ground.”

Bokgabo Poo in a family photo

More of her body was later found. A man was seen with her daughter on footage from a security camera nearby. He was arrested and charged with kidnapping, rape and murder, among other things. The man was released on bail in a case in which he is suspected of raping a 9-year-old girl.

After Bokgabo’s murder, the South African newspaper The Sowetan ran a front-page story featuring the faces of 19 children and the headline, “How many are yet to die?”

Raping and murdering children is uncommon in many countries, but not here.

Shanaaz Mathews, The Children’s Institute

According to crime figures, more than 7500 South Africans were murdered in the last quarter of 2022, of whom 1100 were women and 315 children. Shanaaz Mathews, an expert on infanticide in South Africa, says almost all children know their killer. “It often involves violence by a parent or acquaintance, fatal child abuse,” she says at her office at The Children’s Institute at the University of Cape Town. “Teenage boys are also at high risk of dying from gang violence.”

A much smaller proportion, but still dozens of victims per year, are children who are taken by strangers, in which rape often also plays a role, as with Bokgabo. “The rape and murder of children is uncommon in many countries, but not here,” says Mathews. “And the number of cases where the perpetrator is unknown is increasing.”

According to Mathews, infanticide cannot be viewed separately from the general spiral of violence South Africa is in, for which there are many causes. With every major tragedy such as the murder of Bokgabo, the government is also quick to point to the socio-economic problems in South Africa, a country with a violent past, with a lot of alcohol and drug abuse, unemployment and frustration.

Police cuts

These are factors that all play a role, but with that the government is also shifting responsibility, say experts and opposition members. Because the increase could partly be explained by the decline of the police, something that the government can do something about. Because despite the high crime rates, the police are being cut back and not enough new officers are being recruited. According to opposition party DA, South Africa has about 100,000 agents and about 90,000 more are needed.

Researcher David Bruce of the Institute of Security Studies calculated that the police have solved 55 percent fewer murders between 2012 and 2021. There are not enough officers and detectives and the quality of their investigations has deteriorated, he says. Motivation is low.

Also, less than 10 percent of rape cases are resolved. “The police don’t ask the right questions”, Mathews also sees. “More and more cases are becoming cold cases. That means perpetrators get away with violence and we constantly have perpetrators around us who are a threat to our children.”

Bokgabo’s mother is concerned about the evidence against the suspect in her child’s murder. He may have been seen with her on security footage, but is that enough? The suspect denies being the perpetrator. It also remains difficult for her to accept that he was free on bail. “Men get away with too much in South Africa,” she sighs. “This has to stop.”