While the economy has been severely affected by the nationwide lockdown, criminals have not shut down their operations, and the vehicle-recovery sector continues to deliver an essential service.
As a company operating in the vehicle recovery space, our organisation has first-hand experience of the trends around hijackings and car theft in our country. At the start of the lockdown, these crimes declined to almost nothing.
Our recovery partners reported that for the first time in decades, entire days would go by without a single car being stolen in South Africa. This was unprecedented.
The drop-off was largely because there were simply not as many cars on the road. We all retreated to the safety of our homes and complexes and heeded the government call to isolate ourselves and limit transmission of Covid-19.
The economic shutdown also meant that during the traditional vehicle theft times – our stats show these are 11am till noon and 6pm till 9pm – no business activity was happening. Gyms, restaurants, and businesses were shut, and social visits were curtailed, robbing criminals of opportunities to steal vehicles.
Thirdly, the sheer novelty of the lockdown meant that all of us – including the vehicle-theft syndicates – suspended operations while we tried to understand exactly what was happening.
Now that we’ve all adjusted to the new reality, our records show we are heading back towards business as usual, in the mainstream and the illicit economy.
As the lockdown progressed, our data has shown a slow increase in the numbers of stolen and hijacked vehicles. This may be because criminals are becoming desperate, or because they are becoming more brazen, and accustomed to lockdown conditions.
It’s also true that all of us have followed a similar trajectory in our daily behaviour. Where initially a trip to the supermarket was a rarity fraught with apprehension, now we are far more confident about leaving the house, armed with our facemasks and hand sanitiser.
The ever-heavier road traffic has also provided cover for criminal elements. Vehicle theft data from Netstar and our recovery partner Rentrak show that our levels of vehicle crime are back up to about 60% of where they were before the lockdown.
Incidentally, the vehicle recovery teams deserve a tribute for the work they do. Today, they are not only selflessly placing their lives at risk by fighting crime, but also exposing themselves to the coronavirus every time they recover a car or apprehend a suspect.
As essential services providers, companies like ours have continued operating throughout the lockdown, providing all our usual support, while also implementing Covid-19 health and safety protocols.
Our recovery rates during the initial lockdown have been better than usual, with 99% of vehicles stolen being recovered through our car tracking technology, radio frequency and GPS/GSM communications, and air and ground crews. The patterns that we are seeing also indicate that during the lockdown, many vehicles are not being stolen by professional syndicates, but by amateurs, often on impulse.
But as the lockdown has progressed, we have seen the established syndicates getting back into business as we’ve moved to Level 4, becoming more brazen and ambitious by the day.
An unexpected trend that we have identified was that as the lockdown was imposed, for the first time vehicle crime in Cape Town was higher than in Johannesburg. As overall crime levels have risen, though, Gauteng has reclaimed its position as the nation’s crime hotspot.
With recent government statements that parts of the country are set to move to a Level 3 lockdown, trends indicate that this would see vehicle crime levels returning to what they were before the lockdown.
We are comfortable that our teams have the ability to deal with this challenge and to keep our customers and their property safe.
However, the unfortunate fact of the matter is that crime is a part of the South African economy. When the lockdown is relaxed in order to stimulate the economy, crime levels will rise in parallel with our business and social activity.
As with so many of the decisions we are forced to make these days, opening the economy will be a double-edged sword. It will create opportunities and support people’s livelihoods, but it will do the same thing for those operating in the shadow economy – our criminals. In the vehicle-recovery sector, we are standing ready to deal with this eventuality.
- Charles Morgan is Operations Executive Netstar, a subsidiary of JSE-listed technology company, Altron.