The Causes of Crime: Is South Africa on the Right Track?

Article excerpt


The identification of causes and phenomena associated with crime is a primary objective of this article, especially in view of its practical value and the belief that such identifications can be useful when seeking to offer an explanation for, correcting or controling criminal behaviour. An analysis of official and unofficial sources indicates that social development is closely linked to crime. The traditional belief is that more equitable distribution of economic wealth and technological progress will reduce crime and social conflict. It may, however, also result in an increase in overall crime rates because of modernisation and socioeconomic growth. Generally, groups of social factors have been universally regarded as contributing to crime. Indications are that the strategy employed by government is a positive step in the endeavour to coordinate responses to crime in a responsible and rational manner. However, more emphasis is still placed on the social context in which the person functions, taking limited note of the individual, characterised by his or her unique personality composition.


Crime has become a feature of life for many communities in South Africa. As any observer would immediately notice, robbery (with or without aggravating circumstances) and theft (1) occur with alarming frequency and astounding impunity in many urban areas, informal settlements, and even rural areas.

In the period between 5000 BC and 1692 AD the high crime rate would have been blamed on demonic influences or during the period between 3500 BC and 1630 AD, on the zodiac or planetary influences. (2) Today, the causes of crime should be sought far beyond these factors. Although people have different perceptions of the reasons underpinning crime, few studies have attempted to explore the magnitude or the causes of crime in South Africa. (3)

This article will focus on the causes universally regarded as contributing to crime, based on an analysis of official and unofficial sources. These factors will be addressed from a criminological point of view, after which comments and suggestions to move forward will be offered.


The term criminology derives from the Latin word crimen, translated as "offence", and was introduced by the anthropologist Paul Topinard in 1889. (4) Criminologists use a variety of scientific methods to investigate criminal behaviour and related topics. However, because crime penetrates almost all areas of social life, the scope of criminological studies is virtually unlimited. Therefore, as a discipline, Criminology is defined as the scientific study of crime and (notions) of crime control. (5)

The identification of causes and phenomena associated with crime is one of the most popular goals in criminology, especially in view of its practical value and the belief that such identifications are useful when seeking to correct or control criminal behaviour. The utility of discovering causes must, however, be qualified. Knowing what causes crime is not necessarily the same as reducing or addressing crime. Causation refers to factors or phenomena that have to be present (necessary or sufficient conditions) to precipitate crime. It is argued, however, that causal relationships are images created out of past experiences rather than observed reality. "No force can be directly observed coming from poverty, economic inequality, or deviant friends that drives a person to commit a crime. Conversely, no force can be observed coming from a well-developed superego, a stake in conformity, or a strong belief in the rules in society that restrains a person from committing a crime". (6)

The paradoxical nature of social life is reflected in two dimensions. On a personal (idiographic) level, the quality of human life involves life chances and life-results; in other words, opportunities and outcomes. Just as it is true that people often make much of their life in spite of poor opportunities, the opposite is equally true. …


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