"It would be helpful to have hate crime legislation because it would focus the police minds when investigating, prosecutors when prosecuting, judges when passing sentences," said Kerry Williams, partner at law firm Webber Wentzel.
"And the legislature could give some guidance in how to handle these crimes."
Williams told the conference on crime reduction that the perpetrators of hate crimes could be prosecuted using common law, and judges could recognise the aspect of hate when passing judgment on these cases.
She said legislation would give added focus and stipulate minimum sentences for hate crimes.
In hate crimes, the perpetrator selects his or her victim for some discriminatory reason such as race, nationality, gender, or sexual orientation.
Juan Nel, director of the centre for applied psychology at Unisa, said hate crimes were not recognised in South Africa.
"Unless they become a recognised crime category, they can’t be recorded at police station level.
"Without it being recorded as such, it is very difficult to get a sense of what the prevalence would be.
"Once we have it as a recorded category… you can get a sense as to how often it happens, to whom it happens and where it happens."
He said recording the crime would also help research efforts aimed at understanding the nature and impact of the crimes.
Nel said the priority that was put on hate crimes was not based on prevalence, but their impact.
"We believe it extends beyond the individual, it also affects the community. It also about the psychological impact that it has: the fear, the anger that it might create, and sometimes it has [a] ripple effect."
He said the Hate Crimes Working Group, in partnership with other civic organisations, had identified 450 hate crimes in five provinces since 2005.
These were KwaZulu-Natal, Gauteng, Western Cape, Limpopo and Eastern Cape.
The crimes consisted of 150 lesbian gay bisexual trans-gender intersex (LGBTI) cases, 150 foreign national cases and 150 other cases.
The conference was hosted by the Institute For Security Studies and would end on Friday.