South Africa faces numerous challenges in preventing and reducing the levels of violence and crime. The burden of mortality and morbidity arising from violence and injury affects the lives of millions of individuals annually and continues to undermine social harmony and socio-economic development.
This is, now more than ever, a national public health priority - one that needs to be monitored and controlled so as to limit the number of injuries and non-natural deaths in South Africa. However, inadequate data prevents institutions from accurately identifying the trends of firearm-related crime and its impact on society.
Considered one of the most common causes of mortality in South Africa, firearm violence has over the years continued to plague not only South Africa but also the entire continent. Data available in South Africa identifies firearms as one of the leading non-natural causes of death in the country, with handguns considered to be the weapon of choice among criminals.
Some of the ways in which criminals obtain firearms are through theft or through the South African Police Service (SAPS) and private individuals losing or misplacing weapons such as pistols, shotguns, rifles and revolvers. These have seen few recoveries. Increased acquisition of firearms by citizens for self-defence and illegal access to unlicensed firearms by individuals have further exacerbated the problem of firearm crime and violence in the country.
In measuring the socio-economic impact sustained by South Africa as a result of violence and more particularly firearm-related violence, it becomes clear that its magnitude can only be estimated. One way of doing this is by dividing the costs into direct costs; which include legal services, direct medical and incarceration costs and indirect costs such as productivity losses, lost earnings and psychological costs (pain and suffering). In South Africa, violence is the leading cause of death among the economically active age group of 15-54-year-olds. High levels of injury and death in this group place significant strain on the country's economy, which results in loss of productivity and human capital, especially that of skilled capital necessary for economic growth.
Available data on the use of firearms in incidents of crime and violence is no longer as disaggregated as it used to be in the 1990s, and has not been made publically available by the SA Government since 2000. Firearms crime and violence trends can therefore only be speculated at by means of gathering data from media reports, aggregated SAPS violence and crime data, and various data collection systems such as Statistics South Africa (Stats SA) and the National Injury Mortality Surveillance System (NIMSS).
The effective collection of cause-of-death data plays a key role in the management and control of criminal and violent activities and is an essential component of health information systems. It assists hospitals, government and various other organisations in identifying the major causes of premature mortality, and it highlights the different health needs within a given community. In South Africa, limited reliable data on the extent of injury mortality and morbidity and its contribution to the country's burden of disease and social ills continues to impact negatively on the country. This inability to capture data about injuries has negative consequences for the allocation of resources within the health services in South African hospitals, as it prevents them, other organisations and government from establishing effective injury prevention and control programmes.
The need to continue implementing effective injury and mortality surveillance systems such as the NIMSS and the National Non-Fatal Injury Surveillance System (NANFISS) remains vital. These surveillance systems assist greatly in obtaining reliable information on the scale and distribution of firearm-related violence and crime. They reduce the norm of focusing on crimes from a purely law enforcement and criminal justice standpoint to one that acknowledges and identifies the risk factors that are associated with these acts and allow them to occur.
The availability of firearms, alcohol, instances of racial discrimination, unemployment and lack of education, violent upbringings and belief in male dominance are just some of the factors that impact on an individual or community's attitude to crime and violence. The risk factors attached to a violent or criminal incident play a key role in preventing it. They put the violent or criminal incident into context, allowing communities, organisations and governments to identify ways of preventing it. The data collected from these surveillance systems is certainly an effective way to guide developmental efforts and programmes to assist the affected individuals and communities and contribute to limiting the number of firearm-related injuries and deaths sustained in South Africa.
Lauren Tracey is a researcher at the transnational threats and international crime division.