SOUTH Africans seem to have an unerring faith in scary punishments as a means of preventing crime, in defiance of all evidence to the contrary. Public opinion polls consistently show widespread support for the death sentence for serious contact crimes, for instance, even though poor policing means the odds of perpetrators being caught are still so low in some of these categories that degrees of punishment are all but irrelevant. The state can’t execute people it can’t catch, even if the constitution allows it to.

Another recent example was the government’s suggestion that copper theft be declared "economic sabotage" — assuming our legal system even includes such a crime — to make thieves think twice before pulling up cables and disrupting essential services. Again, the reason copper theft remains rampant has more to do with the high rand price of copper and the perpetrators’ justified impression that they are unlikely to be caught than it does with the sentences they may face if convicted.

Doubling the conviction rate for copper theft would be virtually guaranteed to stamp it out — even a short stay in a South African jail must be a meaningful deterrent, but only if that is a reasonably likely outcome.

Deputy Co-operative Governance Minister Andries Nel’s suggestion that copper be reclassified a precious metal on a par with gold has a better chance of succeeding, not because the penalties for possessing it in an illegal form would be higher but because that would allow closer monitoring of those who deal in recycled copper and export the metal. Which is, after all, just another way of saying the only real solution is better policing.

The mind-set that leads to such muddled thinking appears to be a result of desperation — when politicians or state officials are faced with an intractable problem and have run out of ideas to address it, promising dreadful consequences for those who break the rules is a convenient way to divert public attention from this fact. That may also explain the Western Cape authorities’ decision to dramatically increase the traffic fines faced by drivers, some by as much as 300%.

Doubling the conviction rate for copper theft would be virtually guaranteed to stamp it out — even a short stay in a South African jail must be a meaningful deterrent, but only if that is a reasonably likely outcome.

This was one of the reasons given for last month’s violent taxi driver protests, which led to several Golden Arrow buses being torched and severe disruption to commuter services for a number of days. It is all very well pointing out that taxi drivers can avoid having to pay swingeing fines — now several times higher for the same offence than in, say, Gauteng — simply by obeying the law. But the reality is the economic incentives inherent in the way the minibus tax industry is structured in SA encourage drivers to maximise the number of trips they make each day, and that leads them to break traffic laws whenever they think they will get away with it.

And even when they don’t, apparently. A presentation by the acting deputy director-general of transport management in the Western Cape, Kyle Reinecke, to the Cape Chamber of Commerce and Industry’s transport portfolio committee several weeks ago — it went unreported in the local media — revealed that only 17% of traffic fines issued by the province are ever collected. Cape Town does slightly better than average at 19%, but the fact remains that this is a dismal record by any standard.

The obvious question is: what was the chief magistrate of the Western Cape thinking when he decided the maximum admission of guilt penalty for serious offences should increase to R5,000 from R1,500? That the 80% or more of motorists who are not paying their fines at present would be more inclined to cough up if the penalty was several times higher? And why would the provincial transport and public works department support the move as a means of "improving commuter safety and driver compliance" when it knows full well that the most likely outcome is still lower collection rates?

As some of the chamber’s members pointed out, a system that allows four out of five motorists caught breaking the law to avoid any consequences is going to have zero credibility with the public, because it is patently unjust. Some of the minority who pay up presumably do so of their own volition without being prosecuted, but with such a low compliance rate it is surely only low-hanging fruit that is being targeted. In this context that is almost certainly middle-class private vehicle owners and registered businesses.

According to Cape Town’s mayoral committee member for safety and security, JP Smith, the city collects about R150m a year from fines at present and the focus of enforcement efforts is on reducing road carnage, not increasing revenue. It will be fascinating to see how both of these measures are faring a year from now.

See more articles

Our Network