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SA’s male murder statistics a health crisis, says SAMRC

The South African Medical Research Council says an urgent national response is needed to probe the high murder rate of men – 87% – compared with that of women, writes Daniel Steyn in GroundUp.

This was the first study on of its kind in SA, (previous research having delved mainly into femicide), and focused on 2017 to coincide with the third national femicide study (previous femicide studies were in 2000 and 2009).

The researchers said that although men bear the “disproportionate burden” of murders, this has not resulted in “targeted, meaningful prevention” interventions.

For the study, Professor Richard Matzopoulos of the MRC’s Burden of Disease Unit and his team, which included scientists from the UCT School of Public Health, studied post-mortem reports from 2017 to compare murders of women and men. Among the factors looked at were cause of death, age, geographic location and whether alcohol played a role.

The findings, published in PLOS Global Public Health, found that 87% of people murdered in 2017 were men, with similar percentages in 2009 (86%) and 2000 (84%).

The researchers faced challenges getting the paper published in a peer-reviewed journal, according to Dr Morna Cornell, one of the study’s authors, who told GroundUp that men’s health is generally understudied.

“We are living in an outdated paradigm which regards all men as powerful and able to navigate health systems etc., and therefore, less deserving of care,” she said.

The most common causes of death among male murder victims were sharp stabbings and shootings. For people aged 15 to 44, male murder rates were more than eight times higher than female murders.

The Western Cape has the biggest gap between male and female victims: for every female killed, 11.4 men were killed.

Male murders peaked over December and weekends, suggesting the role played by alcohol.

The study aims to challenge the idea that men are “invulnerable”.

“The fact that men are both perpetrators and victims of homicides masks the strong evidence that they are extremely vulnerable in many contexts,” the study reads.

Murder in South Africa is concentrated in poor neighbourhoods where the effects of poverty and inequality are most significant.

According to the study, “violence has been normalised as a frequent feature of civil protest and political discourse”.

High levels of gun ownership and imprisonment also contribute to violence statistics.

“Men are socialised into coping by externalising through anger, irritability, violence against intimate partners and others, and increased engagement in risk-taking behaviours. This, alongside the high levels of violence to which males are exposed across (life), (causes) a continuous, and often intergenerational cycle of violence,” the study says.

While the authors acknowledge that “violence against women is endemic in South Africa, with rates almost six times the global figures”, it argues that “men’s disproportionate burden of homicide has not resulted in targeted, meaningful prevention”.

Their recommended interventions include stricter control of alcohol and firearms, programmes tackling societal norms that drive physical violence, and efforts to overcome the root causes of poverty and inequality.

Matzopolous, the main author, told GroundUp that more research is needed to understand risks and interventions, especially in a South African context.

“Phase 2 of this study will explore victim/perpetrator and situational contexts,” he said.

Study details

South Africa’s male homicide epidemic hiding in plain sight: Exploring sex differences and patterns in homicide risk in a retrospective descriptive study of post-mortem investigations

Richard Matzopoulos, Megan Prinsloo, Naeemah Abrahams, et al.

Published in PLOS Global Public Health on 22 November 2023


South Africa has an overall homicide rate six times the global average. Males are predominantly the victims and perpetrators, but little is known about the male victims. For the country’s first ever study on male homicide we compared 2017 male and female victim profiles for selected covariates, against global average and previous estimates for 2009. We conducted a retrospective descriptive study of routine data collected through post-mortem investigations, calculating age-standardised mortality rates for manner of death by age, sex and province and male-to-female incidence rate ratios with 95% confidence intervals. We then used generalised linear models and linear regression models to assess the association between sex and victim characteristics including age and mechanism of injury (guns, sharp and blunt force) within and between years. A total of 87% of 19,477 homicides in 2017 were males, equating to seven male deaths for every female, with sharp force and firearm discharge being the most common cause of death. Rates were higher among males than females at all ages, and up to eight times higher for the age group 15–44 years. Provincial rates varied overall and by sex, with the highest comparative risk for men vs. women in the Western Cape Province (11.4 males for every 1 female). Male homicides peaked during December and were highest during weekends, underscoring the prominent role of alcohol as a risk factor. There is a massive, disproportionate and enduring homicide risk among South African men which highlights their relative neglect in the country’s prevention and policy responses. Only through challenging the normative perception of male invulnerability do we begin to address the enormous burden of violence impacting men. There is an urgent need to address the insidious effect of such societal norms alongside implementing structural interventions to overcome the root causes of poverty, inequality and better control alcohol and firearms.


PLOS article – South Africa’s male homicide epidemic hiding in plain sight: Exploring sex differences and patterns in homicide risk in a retrospective descriptive study of post-mortem investigations (Open access)


GroundUp article – Male murder rate is a national health priority, say researchers (Creative Commons Licence)


See more from MedicalBrief archives:


Impact of gun violence on SA’s healthcare system


Violence turning the Western Cape into a ‘war-zone’


Four gunshot wounds but a two-week wait for surgery at George Mukhari Academic Hospital






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