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Research Themes

The Centre of Criminology engages in a number of projects with a range of partners, including civil society organisations, local government authorities, state institutions and the international multi-lateral system. Projects are selected to apply the Centre’s expertise to making tangible improvements in the security and safety of communities, to identify, disseminate and replicate best practices and to strengthen national, regional and international policy and cooperation.

Our programmes, publications, partnerships and courses aim to extend the boundaries of criminology as an academic discipline. Criminal justice and criminology operate as multidisciplinary fields, enabling recognition and response to an ever-changing international, regional and local landscape of risk.

Projects are selected to apply the Centre’s expertise to making tangible improvements in the security and safety of communities, to identify, disseminate and replicate best practices and to strengthen national, regional and international policy and cooperation.

Recent clusters of research priorities within the Centre include:

Urban Security

Achieving urban security for rapidly expanding populations in cities across the developing world is likely to be one of the pre-eminent challenges of our age. Insecurity and violence threaten enormous numbers of people across the world’s mega-cities, with those who bear the brunt of violence often the poorest and most marginalised.

City and national government responses are generally poorly funded, not well conceived, and seldom reliant on long-term research and analysis. Cape Town, like other major urban complexes around the developing world, faces multiple challenges, including improving levels of security for her residents. The city continues to experience a high level of violent crime and a long-term challenge with gang activity.

The Centre’s work draws on a long history of researching urban violence, crime and safety issues in Cape Town, as well as in other cities in South Africa. More recently, the Centre has broadened its expertise to focus on a wider set of urban experiences in the Global South, commissioning researchers from 10 cities across the world to analyse emerging trends and challenges and to strategise around effective solutions.

The Centre is focused both on theoretical and empirical work on urban security, seeking to ensure a rethink in approach and priorities by urban managers and police officials.

State and Non-State Security and Policing

It is difficult to imagine a modern state without a police force. The presence of public or state police has become an unquestioned part of the contemporary, particularly urban landscape. Publicly funded, uniformed police officers are part of our common sense and popular culture. We imagine them as a counterweight to the threat of crime and terrorism, so that while many are uncomfortable with their intrusion into daily life, their presence is demanded nonetheless.

Despite these assumptions and demands, the origins of modern state policing are less than two hundred years old. In South Africa and many other African states, democratic policing is still a new, often incomplete project.

Before the creation of state police, indeed before the creation of the state itself, order was policed and maintained by a range of means actors including elders and noblemen, watchmen and prefects, soldiers, slaves, chiefs and untitled members of groups living in community. In many parts of the world, non-state police actors still have more impact and legitimacy han state police.

Nearly half the world’s population lives in rural areas into which states and their police often struggle to reach. Some areas within major metropoles are also off limits to state authorities. This is particularly pronounced in many parts of Africa where infrastructure and governance can be weak. In some areas, non-state, both formal and informal policing and justice practices function in the absence of state systems. But in other instances, non-state policing actors, including traditional authorities, private security, community volunteers, vigilante groups and gangs work to bring particular visions of order to select spaces. Sometimes these visions are pursued in collaboration with state police, while at other times they directly oppose the state project.

Researchers at the Centre are engaged in work relating to both state and non-state policing, including how the two are, and can be networked together to promote efficient, fair, respectful practices that make African states safe.

Organised Crime and Illicit Markets

Globalisation has transformed the nature of illicit markets in every country. From the early 1990s illicit flows of people, cash and commodities such as drugs or wildlife products, have transformed how we understand what has generally been termed “organised crime” and how it operates. Indeed, the set of conceptual tools and terminology that we have at our disposal are arguably not well suited to trying to understand the emerging reality. What is particularly clear is that the distinctions between licit and illicit markets are becoming increasingly difficult to draw. None of this is to say that what we are experiencing is entirely new, but the scale and scope of these developments is unprecedented.

 Mapping illicit flows and providing a more effective set of conceptual explanations for what is underway is a critical objective of the Centre’s National Research Foundation programme on organised crime and illicit markets. The work is primarily focussed on South Africa and Africa more widely and seeks to develop a foundation of research and a network of analysts to pursue it further. While the impact of illicit markets varies greatly across the continent there are important similarities both between developments in middle income countries like South Africa, Nigeria and Kenya, as well as in a set of poorer and conflict prone states. Parallels can also be drawn with a wider set of states, most particularly in Latin America.

The Centre’s work is focussed understanding in greater detail the growth of “organised crime” in South Africa since the advent of democracy, as well as its antecedents before 1994. Detailed research work has been conducted in West Africa and the Sahel, in the Horn and in North Africa. The Centre hopes to make a long-term contribution to the discussion on illicit markets and their impact on livelihoods, governance and development in the African and South African context. 

Environmental Security Observatory (ESO)

The Environmental Security Observatory (ESO) is a joint initiative of the Centre of Criminology, the Global Risk Governance Programme, also at UCT, and the Global Initiative against Transnational Organized Crime. Its objective is to undertake rigorous independent social sciences research that will form the basis for sound evidence-based interventions to reduce environmental crimes. The key research question asks how illegal and legal global wildlife economies operate. We also study:

  • how criminal actors and local communities are incentivised to participate in illegal wildlife economies;
  • the impacts that military and security measures and tactics have on local communities;  
  • how different segments of wildlife supply chains are interlinked; and
  • how demand is factored into value and supply chains for illegal wildlife economies.

Once we gain a better understanding of wildlife trade that is damaging/beneficial to ecological systems, we will develop evidence-based policy research that identifies the most appropriate leverage points to disrupt illegal wildlife economies and strengthen legal ones. Of particular interest are local communities, livelihoods and reward systems; and, how their behaviour shapes/is shaped by illegal and legal wildlife economies.

Drugs and Gangs in Cape Town

While South Africa’s transition from autocratic to democratic governance is often described as a miracle, this miracle has also created an environment in which the production, distribution, and consumption of illegal drugs flourishes. Moreover, as both a function of history and contemporary problems, the South African state has failed to create a more equitable and productive society, the result of which is that members of many communities continue to be economically isolated, political disenfranchised, and socially excluded. Into this void, the lure and draw of gangsterism has become very powerful, especially in the Western Cape region.

Taken together, the gangs provide angry young people an identity while the financial accruements of the trade in the many illegal drugs gives them the ability to express that identity. Problematically, the laws that the South African state relies on in order to police and prevent the illegal production, distribution, and use of drugs, and those that target gangsterism, are symptomatic and frequently inadequate. For instance, the primary piece of legislation used in the targeting of illegal drugs, the ‘Drugs and Drug Trafficking Act No. 140 of 1992’ empowers the police to search any premises, object, or person on ‘reasonable grounds’ of suspicion. At no point does the Act declare what constitutes ‘reasonable grounds’. While the South African government has released a new National Drug Master Plan 2013/2017, which advocates community-orientated and harm-reduction approaches in an attempt to reduce illegal drugs in the country, the prescriptions of the plan and punitive approach of the Act have yet to be reconciled.

This has led, in part, to a simple yet sobering fact – the production, distribution, and use of methamphetamine (or ‘tik’ as it is known colloquially) has never decreased since it first came to public attention in 1998. Clearly, new understandings, procedures, and policies are desperately needed. Such undertakings cannot however occur in isolation from the broader structural problems facing the country.