The shooting death of TV star and model Reeva Steenkamp by the Olympian Oscar Pistorius has lead to a renewed discussion of gun violence in South Africa. Writing in the Globe and Mail, Geoffrey York pushes back against what he says is a growing media narrative of rampant gun violence in the country.

Already some foreign observers are assuming that volleys of gunshots are just a normal part of life in this country, and that Mr. Pistorius reacted like any typical South African to the fear of crime. It’s an assumption that’s tempting but wrong.

Of course most middle-class South Africans take plenty of precautions against crime. Security alarms, barred windows and doors, high walls, electric fences and motion detectors are all popular. Yet even in the most dangerous cities, gun-wielding paranoia is not nearly as common as outsiders believe.

I’ve lived in Johannesburg, the most crime-ridden city in South Africa, for the past four years. I have dozens of friends in the city, and some have been victims of home invasions or burglaries, but none keeps a gun under the bed, let alone feels any desire to blast bullets through doors at the slightest sound.

Studies suggest that 12 per cent of South Africans own guns. It’s a relatively high percentage by global standards. But it still means that the vast majority of South Africans prefer not to have guns in their houses – mostly for safety reasons, since they realize how often guns can be stolen, misused, or accidentally fired.

In fact, the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime collects homicide data from around the world. South Africa isn’t the most dangerous country in the world per capita, but it is certainly up there.

The UN also keeps global statistics on the use of firearms in homicides. The most recent data available for South Africa is 2007. Using that data, I compared homicide by firearm rates for four sample countries.

Online Graphing

Other Data:

-In 2007, there were 8319 murders by firearm in South Africa. That was 43% of all homicides.

-In the USA, there were 11730, which amounted to 68% of all homicides.

-Canada had 187 murders by gun, which amounted to about 33% of all homicides.

-And Brazil that year experienced 34,147 gun murders, which was 70% of all homicides in 2007.

Things may have gotten better in South Africa over the past 5 years, but it’s clear that gun violence is a very big problem in South Africa–much bigger than it is here in the USA. Canada, it is not.

  • O Clare

    I found York’s article to be largely full of anecdotal evidence – in which case it’s important to note that York likely faces a good deal less danger than many South Africans, given his status as a marginally affluent white foreign man. Not that that makes him completely target-free, of course: foreigners and those who appear wealthy are often at risk of muggings, and York likely has to travel to many areas for his line of work. But other people – South African women (clearly, in Steenkamp’s case) – face great danger at the risk of guns; those living in more dangerous neighbourhoods or who lack the social protection that York is afforded by his status as a known Canadian journalist are likely to feel more in danger or to face violence on a more regular basis than York does.

    I think that the attempt York is making to temper the story of South Africa as crime-ridden and dangerous is a good one: it’s important to counterbalance the stereotypes that many people hold (and the stereotypes that this horrific event is inadvertently reinforcing and drawing attention to). It’s important that York share his perception of South Africa as a place where he feels safe, and where danger is not omnipresent. But I also think that York’s reliance on anecdotal evidence of his own experiences doesn’t support his case as strongly as he thinks it does.