PRETORIA, South Africa – PRETORIA, South Africa (AP) — South Africa's murder rate, one of the highest in the world, has dropped by 8.6 percent to its lowest level in nearly two decades, according to statistics released Thursday.
Authorities credited better policing for the decline. Officers had stepped up their efforts in preparation for the World Cup in June and July, when South Africa hosted hundreds of thousands of foreign visitors.
Police Minister Nathi Mthethwa said the number of murders had dropped below 17,000 for the first time since authorities starting keeping nationwide statistics in 1994.
Attempted murder was down by 6.1 percent, sexual offenses by 4.4 percent and armed robbery by 7.5 percent, he said. Assault with grievous bodily harm marginally decreased by 0.5 percent, he added.
Mthethwa cited better coordination among crime-fighting agencies, the profiling of most wanted criminals and the introduction of tactical response teams.
Critics have questioned whether some police departments are keeping back reports. Mthethwa said of all the crimes, murder "is the one category you cannot easily cheat."
"In other words, the fact that such a crime is counted based on the actual bodies makes it more reliable," he said.
Annette Hubschle, a researcher from South Africa's independent Institute for Security Studies, said while some numbers might be missing, "it is clear that there have been improvements."
The main opposition Democratic Alliance party, usually scathing in its assessment of the African National Congress government's efforts to bring down crime, said the figures were reason for cautious optimism.
"Crime is something which affects each and every South African and a decrease in crime is obviously something to be welcomed," said Dianne Kohler-Barnard, the Democratic Alliance's spokeswoman on crime.
The 16,834 murders police recorded for the year ending March 31 put murders at 46 a day in a country with 50 million people.
Along with the advances, the minister said authorities were concerned about a 4.4 percent increase in business robbery. Other crimes that went up were commercial crime, stock theft, illegal possession of weapons and ammunition, and drug- and alcohol-related crimes.
On Thursday, Kenneth Meshoe, leader of the small opposition African Christian Democratic Party, said the latest crime figures show police are moving in the right direction.
"But the police in South Africa need to root out corruption within the police force," Meshoe said.
Former police chief Jackie Selebi was recently sentenced to 15 years for a corruption conviction. Selebi is appealing.
Selebi's successor, Bheki Cele, has been accused of authorizing the move of police headquarters to another building without following proper bidding procedures. Cele has denied the allegations.
Associated Press Writer Mia Snyman contributed to this report.