Criminals take advantage of power shortages in South Africa

The severe energy crisis in South Africa has had a negative impact on every sector of life. Regular and protracted power outages, which began in 2007, are also contributing to a rise in criminal activity, particularly street crime. The most recent quarterly crime numbers have negatively impacted the economy, food security, health, and educational outcomes.

Comparing July to September 2022 to the same period in 2021, it has become clear that power outages contributed significantly to an increase in all types of theft. This coincided with the nation’s most catastrophic power outages ever recorded.

In addition, according to the police department’s yearly crime statistics for the years 2012/13 through 2021/22, there was an increase in robberies in 2015. This year had more power outages than prior years (35 days).

Based on claims data, insurance companies propose a high correlation between power outages and property crime in affluent communities. In addition, a growing number of reports from both affluent and impoverished regions of the nation relate power outages to an increase in interpersonal crime, specifically robberies.

In recent months, the police and police ministry have publicly connected power outages to robberies and other crimes.

How then do power outages contribute to an increase in robberies?

This topic cannot be answered definitively due to the absence of thorough studies demonstrating a correlation between power outages and robberies in the country. However, crime prevention and policing theories, as well as international studies, can provide insight into the likely relationship between power outages and theft. According to this idea, power disruptions (which Eskom refers to as “loadshedding”) hinder crime prevention tactics. This is particularly true at night, when these measures rely heavily on public illumination. As patrols and other police services are restricted, power outages also reduce the efficiency of law enforcement.

The hypothesis of crime prevention through environmental design is beneficial.

It employs two primary measures: target hardening and visibility and surveillance.

To dissuade criminals, target hardening employs security features such as secured doors, gates, fencing, alarm systems, CCTV cameras, and burglar bars. Target hardening has the ability to minimize the risk of home invasions and business robberies in some circumstances, according to the criminology literature. Ideally, these measures should be integrated with other crime-prevention strategies.

In South Africa, private security firms assert that thieves have exploited the fact that many residential and commercial security systems are vulnerable during blackouts.

However, robberies are more widespread in the country’s poorer metropolitan areas, where residents cannot afford to install such security systems. And the majority of robberies occur in public areas.

Surveillance and visibility presume that individuals will be deterred from committing robberies in public settings where their actions will be clearly observed by others (“eyes on the street”) and they may be identified and apprehended by law enforcement.

This may include the presence of people going about their normal daily activities or actively patrolling the area, as well as CCTV cameras. Illumination in public settings, particularly at night, is nonetheless necessary for effective visibility and surveillance. Studies conducted in various nations have demonstrated that street illumination and CCTV cameras effectively deter robberies.

Power outages, especially at night, significantly impair visibility. This is clear from the numerous stories of individuals being targeted by crooks when wandering at night.

Systematic assessments of policing research have demonstrated that regular and visible police patrols, particularly in crime hotspots, are an effective crime prevention measure. Obviously, cops cannot conduct adequate nighttime patrols during power shortages. This makes police work in South Africa more hazardous.

In response to a parliamentary inquiry regarding the impact of power outages on the South African Police Service (SAPS), police minister Bheki Cele stated:

“(It) has a negative impact on SAPS service delivery… on all communication and network operations, including the registration of case dockets… Several stations cannot operate at night due to a lack of lighting.”

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During power outages, there have also been complaints of some police emergency phone centers being inaccessible.

During power outages, the only feasible short- to medium-term crime prevention option available to authorities is to exclude high-crime regions from the outages. This may not be possible under such a severe electrical shortage.

In some locations, an increase in community patrols is a desirable trend. Unfortunately, some of this community crime prevention activity has resulted in vigilante actions.

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