South Africa: Is Cape Town's Drop in Business Robbery a Cause for Concern?

Immigrant spaza shop owners in Nelson Mandela Bay (file photo).

A fall in business robberies over the past decade could indicate rising levels of extortion and organised crime.

South Africa is a country plagued by violent crime. Media headlines of murders, kidnappings and sexual violence are backed up by the country's crime data. The Institute for Security Studies' (ISS) recent call for policing reforms describes how the South African Police Service's (SAPS) track record has measurably declined since 2012, with crimes such as murder increasing and public perceptions of safety falling.

But in Cape Town, one form of violent crime is bucking this trend and showing a consistent and significant decline. Business robberies, which initially rose in the early 2000s, have been falling markedly over the past decade, as reflected by ISS Crime Hub data.

Business robberies differ from crimes such as burglary because they entail violence or the threat thereof. In Cape Town, business robberies started increasing in 2006 when reported cases surged from 99 to 1 656 cases in 2014/15. This crime wave comprised an increase of well over 1 000% in a decade.

But since 2015 the trend has reversed. Reported business robberies dropped by over a third to 1 036 in 2022/23. This decrease is even more noticeable in many of the city's townships. Business robberies in Khayelitsha fell from 143 to 24 cases between 2012/13 and 2022/23. Similar marked declines occurred in many of Cape Town's other township areas such as Gugulethu, Nyanga, Harare and Philippi East.

What is behind this drop, and why should we be concerned rather than celebrate? There could be many explanations. Reduced reporting rates, rather than actual crime, could contribute to lower numbers recorded by police, or declines could be linked to possible lower levels of general criminality.

However, another possible explanation exists for falling business robberies. In South Africa overall, those who commit these crimes disproportionately target foreign nationals. A 2015 SAPS docket analysis found that foreign nationals comprised around 47.6% of victims nationally (but made up 4.2% of the general population). Somalis, Ethiopians and Bangladeshis were targeted, many of whom ran small businesses in townships. These traders have for years experienced violent and sometimes deadly and repeated attacks on their businesses, usually with impunity.

Many foreign-operated businesses in Cape Town's townships have fallen victim to extortion networks. A 2021 Global Initiative Against Transnational Organized Crime report describes how numerous Somali traders in Cape Town had for years refused to pay extortion fees, which often cost them their lives. Eventually, however, a desire to avoid further bloodshed led to a change in approach.

A Somali community leader described in the report that after many deadly attacks in 2017, Khayelitsha shopkeepers decided to negotiate: '[The gangsters] told us, "Look, you can give us money per month, then you will never be killed and you will never be robbed. Anyone who robs you, we will apprehend them. The police will do nothing for you. So, are you going to agree or not?" That is how it came about.'

Extortion in Cape Town's township economies is now a well-publicised phenomenon. Street vendors, spaza shopkeepers and even municipal service staff have complained of being threatened or extorted by criminals. This raises a strong possibility that the decline in business robbery could be linked to a corresponding increase in extortion in the city's townships. It might be that the more reported business robberies go down, the more extortion is going up.

Might extortion be a positive development if it prevents violent attacks on businesses and saves lives? Perhaps, but business robbery declines in townships haven't been mirrored by declines in violent crime. For example, murder (the most accurate indicator of violent crime rates) in Philippi East rose from 47 cases in 2012/13 to 165 in 2022/23. Khayelitsha experiences only slightly fewer murders today than it did a decade ago.

Although robbery involves violence, so does extortion. Gangs attack those who don't pay fees, and deadly clashes frequently break out between extortionists over territories and control.

At the same time, the perceived benefits of extortion - in this case, a drop in reported cases of business robbery - could be misleading. Victims might still be experiencing numerous robberies, but may be reporting them to extortion gangs rather than the police.

In its Western Cape 2013/14 Annual Report 10 years ago, the SAPS said, 'Youths from the very community who "hang" around in the neighbourhood all day have been identified as the main culprits robbing spaza shops.' In contrast, the extortion networks that have gained a footing in township neighbourhoods today comprise organised syndicates that are potentially harder to uproot.

Unlike previous unchecked business robberies, the extortion that may be replacing them poses a danger to South Africans and foreign nationals alike. Municipal service vehicles cannot access areas due to threats against staff, making it difficult to remove waste and provide sanitation. At the same time, small businesses are being hamstrung by violence, threats and fees, stifling economic development and livelihoods.

The marked fall in reported business robberies should not be taken at face value. Instead, it warrants scrutiny as a potential indicator of rising extortion and organised crime. Effective, targeted policing strategies are essential to address these evolving dangers and protect vulnerable communities, including foreign retailers.

The ISS is calling for enhanced data analysis as a means to improve the SAPS, as it enables a better understanding of crime dynamics to drive crime prevention efforts. This is reflected in Cape Town, where the case of business robberies shows that it's not enough to draw immediate conclusions from simple changes in crime trends.

Interpreting these figures requires further analysis of crime patterns and victim profiles, as well as how certain crimes interrelate and have the potential to supplant each other.

Vanya Gastrow, Senior Researcher, Justice and Violence Prevention, ISS Pretoria

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