South Africa does not have a particular piece of legislature that deals with the crime of arson, instead it is classified as a common law crime. This means that the crime is defined through the historical influences on the South African legal system as in conjunction with the courts and case law.
So what constitutes arson under this definition? It can be defined as the intentional and unlawful fire setting to the immovable property of another. Immovable property includes such things as houses or buildings. In most cases of arson, there is also an element of danger to the community or an individual that must be accounted for. For example, should someone set fire to a house, it also endangers the houses next to it and those members of the community living in said houses. This is why arson is considered such a serious crime in South Africa.
People commit the crime of arson for a range of reasons including insurance fraud, rage induced episodes, gang-related fighting, political motivations, and in some communities it is linked to beliefs around witches. Because of its link to insurance fraud, the crime of arson can be pursued in both criminal and civil courts. Therefore someone may be criminally punished for arson, and the person whose property has been damaged may still pursue damages in a civil court. Notably, a criminal judgment will have no bearing on a civil judgement and vice versa, therefore if you feel that you have a claim for damages resulting from suspected arson, do not let a criminal verdict of not guilty stop you from suing.
The definition of the crime of arson is limited in regard to its ambit though, as the word immovable property does not make provision for such losses as instruments, crops, cars or any other moveable property. However, these crimes may be pursued under the common-law crime of malicious damage to property in some cases.
It will be interesting to see how to The Criminal Matters Amendment Act 18 of 2015 influences the prosecution and sentencing of those found guilty of arson or arson-related crimes in the future, as this amendment now makes provision for mandatory sentences.
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