How to Solve South Africa’s Crime Epidemic

Are we headed for a golden age in 2024?


I received a lot of vitriol for my piece suggesting some truths we as white South Africans need to remember.

I realised quite quickly that a lot of that criticism was based on the problem of crime. After all, it is pretty difficult to be positive when you fear for yourself and your family, even in your own home, because of high rates of violent crime.

I myself have written about my own experience with such crime.

So today I want to look more dispassionately at the issue of crime. (Next week, I’ll do education.) Obviously you can’t cover the whole subject in one blog post, but here are some of the ideas of how to prevent crime that people around the world are discussing.

I’m sure many of you have heard of the famous debates surrounding why crime dropped so drastically in America’s cities over the 1990s.

Malcolm Gladwell made famous the idea of the ‘Broken Windows’ theory, which was implemented in New York by Mayor Rudy Giuliani. The theory goes that if you, a teenage delinquent, see a house with a broken window, you are more likely to break another window than if you’d never seen the broken one.

And so the NYPD came down hard on things like graffiti, jay-walking, and cheating the subway system. The story goes that there was subsequently less of an atmosphere of chaos and disorder, so young people on the margins were less likely to tip over into a life of crime.

I find this pretty compelling. As a teacher, I know atmosphere is a highly underrated factor in behaviour.

But then a book was released called Freakonomics in 2005, by Stephen J. Dubner and Steven Levitt, which gained so much traction amongst the educated set, that you will meet a lot of people who now believe that Broken Windows was not the cause of the drop in crime, but rather the legalised abortion boom in the US which began in 1973. This theory states that because there were fewer unwanted children, there were fewer direction-less young people on the streets and thus less crime.

I don’t find this as compelling. You can read the statistical problems people have with the Freakonomics theory here. But on a philosophical level, I think it is highly doubtful that abortion has led to fewer unwanted children – mostly because a culture of free sex tends to create more unwanted children – a culture only enforced by wide acceptability of abortion. Think of how the illegitimacy rates of childbirth are soaring everywhere, even in an age of free condoms and the Pill. Give it a google – the social science backs this point up.

Malcom Gladwell also points out the advent of the Pill (which reduced fertility far more drastically than abortion) never led to a similar drop in crime, and that the Freakonomics generational timing is also off.

Even if abortion rates were the answer to solving crime, the Freakonomics authors point out that then you need to be morally ok with aborting thousands of babies in utero to save tens of lives from homicide. Not really appealing at all to anybody with any kind of ethical inclination (which I hope is most people).

The other major factor in reducing crime according to the Freakonomics guys is much simpler – have more police. As Gladwell points out, this ties in with his theory – more police equals (if they are well trained and skilled) a better ordered environment.

But this is not the whole story when you consider some more recent research.

This research contends that the leading criminal element in western society has not been gangsterism, drugs, poor policing or anything like that, but rather the prevalence of the literal element, lead (Pb), in our air, soil and brains.

Kevin Drum, a journalist for Mother Jones magazine in the US, brought this research to light when he told the story of John Nevin, a consultant for the US government who was looking at the benefits of removing lead paint from old houses.

He was doing this because it has been established clearly that lead affects the development of the brain for children, leading to lower IQ, ADHD and so forth.

Somebody suggested to him to look for a connection between atmospheric lead and violent crime.

The results were astonishing:

‘The biggest source of lead in the postwar era, it turns out, wasn’t paint. It was leaded gasoline. And if you chart the rise and fall of atmospheric lead caused by the rise and fall of leaded gasoline consumption, you get a pretty simple upside-down U: Lead emissions from tailpipes rose steadily from the early ’40s through the early ’70s, nearly quadrupling over that period. Then, as unleaded gasoline began to replace leaded gasoline, emissions plummeted.

‘Intriguingly, violent crime rates followed the same upside-down U pattern. The only thing different was the time period: Crime rates rose dramatically in the ’60s through the ’80s, and then began dropping steadily starting in the early ’90s. The two curves looked eerily identical, but were offset by about 20 years.

‘So Nevin dove in further, digging up detailed data on lead emissions and crime rates to see if the similarity of the curves was as good as it seemed. It turned out to be even better: In a 2000 paper he concluded that if you add a lag time of 23 years, lead emissions from automobiles explain 90 percent of the variation in violent crime in America. Toddlers who ingested high levels of lead in the ’40s and ’50s really were more likely to become violent criminals in the ’60s, ’70s, and ’80s.’

Because different states and cities in the US reduced lead at different rates, there were lots of ways to test the hypothesis – the results all the same. Reduce lead in the air, and twenty years or so later, crime drops.

This is seemingly because, again, for young people on the margin of falling into a life of crime, that little push of a less healthy brain, means a significant number of those marginal cases do in fact turn to crime.

Nobody had ever thought of this connection before because experts in their field tend to look for solutions with their own silos of knowledge – in this case, criminologists looking for solutions involving social science.

So what to make of all this in South Africa?

I know that crime is probably the biggest negative of living in this country. Living in fear is really no way to live. But in a country that has war-zone levels of violence, it is difficult not to be afraid.

If the lead hypothesis is correct, we should be heading for a serious drop in crime at around 2024, 20 years after we got rid of lead in our petrol.

The odds are, though, that given our history, it won’t be that simple. Unlike the US, our economy, our history, and our cultural problems, simply leaves too many people outside of employment and employability. This means our portion of the population on the margins of becoming criminals is so high, that even given the significant impact lead has on crime rates, there will probably still be enough other factors to push young people toward violent acts.

But that does not mean we should ignore the lead factor. The evidence is too compelling to dispel all optimism.

With this in mind, I suggest two, obvious things we as a country should be doing to get rid of crime (I hope the new coalition governments in our metros are reading this!):

1. We get rid of all the old lead everywhere in our cities. It’s no coincidence that lead tends to gather around the people living on the margins.

2. We find the money to put more well-trained police on the streets, who can start by sorting out the small issues which foster an atmosphere of lawlessness. Research shows this to be a real social imperative.

Of course, these two things can only be effective if we are also doing our best to get to the root of the problem – a breakdown in family life, and a related breakdown in economic development. The two issues feed into each other. But if we don’t at least begin with the practical solutions, we make the deeper, spiritual problems that much harder to reach toward, and to solve.

I must admit, to conclude, the lead issue and the Broken Windows paradigm do give me a strange kind of hope. They show us that issues may seem intractable, without any hope of solution, but given the right knowledge, an open mind, and the will to do something, we can make things better.

Quite simply, this is a battle we cannot afford to lose.