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SOUTH AFRICA hijacked by crime.

South Africa's murder rate is 1,000 times higher than the world average; it also has the world's worst record of rapes, and now armed gangs are emptying out banks with military precision. The government meanwhile is claiming victory over crime. Where does the truth lie?

When the South African police service's chief-executive officer Meyer Khan recently told a Johannesburg press briefing: "You ain't seen nothin' yet," he could not have realised the full import of his words. Virtually as he spoke, a 45-year-old mother was shot in the chest and neck by two robbers for the few rands in her handbag as she waited in her car for her daughter at music lessons. She died at the scene. In the nearby suburb of Bryanston, the unarmed and unresisting manager of a motor service station was shot in the head at point blank range by three gangsters who had already emptied the fills. He was killed instantly.

These murders are brutal and senseless -- the taking of human life for the sheer thrill of it.

Mr Khan's unwitting remark was not intended as a reflection on the increase in violent crime in South Africa, just the reverse. It expressed the government's view that crime is on the decrease: "We're winning the streets back from crime," he asserted. Apparently not from the gunmen who took the lives of the housewife and the garage manager, and the perpetrators of the hundreds of violent crimes that were committed throughout Johannesburg and the rest of the country on that day -- business as usual for the burgeoning criminal population that thrives on South Africa's streets.

Mr Khan is one of South Africa's most respected businessmen. He was chief-executive officer of South African Breweries before he took on the job of managing the police force. It was hoped at the time of his appointment that a hard-nosed, non-bureaucratic business approach would be able to view the crime crisis from a different angle and therefore apply different, and workable, solutions. One of the developments instituted by Mr Khan has been to privatise police office jobs. It is his contention that trained cops shouldn't be sitting at desks pushing pieces of paper around -- they should be out on the streets taking care of the bad guys.

Meyer Khan is not without chutzpa. Dodging volleys from the press corps, he insisted that violent crime -- including the world's worst incidence of rape and a murder rate that is seven times greater than that of the United States -- is finally on the wane. He says he has statistics to prove that "the crime situation has stopped deteriorating" and that, with the exception of rape, serious crime levels are beginning to drop. "Within three to five years," he declares confidently, "South Africa can become one of the safest countries in the world."

It will be a while before the average South African believes this to be a possibility. Rough justice and kangaroo courts in poorer areas are becoming commonplace and whites, predominantly rich professionals, are emigrating in a steady stream to the US, Britain and Australia. The average motorist is a basket case, dreading the tap on the car window from the barrel of a hijacker's automatic pistol. Householders go to sleep each night half-expecting to hear the jangle of the burglar alarm at any time. The clamour for the return of the death penalty increases daily.

According to opposition National Party MP Piet Mathee, South Africa's annual murder rate is 1,000% higher than the world average. More than 25,000 South Africans died in acts of criminal violence last year and around R166m was stolen in armed robberies, most of it from banks and cash-in-transit security vehicles.

How is South Africa doing so far this year? That's not easy to say because recent crimes are classified by the government as secret and statistics for crimes can only be released every three months through the office of the Minister for Safety and Security, Sydney Mufamadi. The police explain the delay as a precaution against incorrectly audited crime figures. Opposition IFP safety and security spokesman Mr Phillip Powell says the time lapse is to give the ministry time to "carefully sanitise the statistics so as not to embarrass the government." Figures are difficult to track because of the changes in interpretations of what constitutes violent crime by security officials. Aggravated robbery, for instance, now only extends to the most violent of cases, and thus fewer are recorded. A Durban weekend newspaper reports that although aggravated robberies have decreased since 1994, ordinary robbery has increased by more than 100%.

It is difficult to say whether these figures show a better picture because of the way in which they are now presented, or whether crime rates have dropped in actual terms. The latest statistics released (three months old) reveal that rape has risen by 37%, indecent assault by 69%, housebreaking by 16% escapes from custody by 22% and kidnapping by 9%.

South Africa's private banking sector found itself at odds with official crime pronouncements and thus in a delicate position when it again broke with tradition and released its own bank-related crime statistics. The figures were at variance with those issued by the government and they come shortly after President Mandela bluntly announced on television that people who question police statements are being disloyal and unpatriotic.

Nonetheless, the banks considered that they had a story to tell and went ahead and told it.

According to the Council of South African Banks (COSAB), financial institutions lost nearly Rl40m in robberies last year -- R31.5m more than in 1996. COSAB's statistics show an increase in both the number of incidents and the amount of money stolen. A total of 465 robberies netted R139.9m in 1997 as against 408 yielding R108.4m the previous year.

With an apparent eye on government sensitivities, COSAB chief-executive Mr Bob Tucker disclosed with a mixture of tact and candour: "The increases indicate that while the government is able to report a general reduction in armed robberies, that is definitely not the case in the banking industry."

While financial institutions have spent around R400m in protection devices, "it is increasingly found that the harder it is for thieves to access cash, the more violent their methods become," says Mr Tucker

A matter of overkill

Newspapers have stopped reporting all murders. Only the most gruesome and spectacular make the editorial pages, other everyday killings are too commonplace to warrant space. The mass circulation daily The Citizen devotes a full page each day to the most heinous. Against this background, when President Mandela announces on television as he did in February that there has been a "marked decrease in crime in South Africa," it is to an understandably sceptical audience.

Police commissioner Mr George Fivaz remains positive. He is convinced that the police service is moving in the right direction as far as setting up and utilising its crime intelligence network is concerned. "But it's a long process," he explains, "which can't be completed overnight." It is his view that crime intelligence has resulted in police making breakthroughs and arrests in many serious crimes. "Armed robberies, including heists and vehicle hijackings," he contends, "have dropped over the past two years by more than 50%."

Crime turns professional

While the quantity of cash-in-transit heists may have declined (officially from 410 in 1996 to 230 last year), the quality of those that have been committed has risen spectacularly. In the past year 11 security guards have been killed and more than R100m stolen from cash-carrying security vehicles in daring, daylight robberies that rival 1920 Chicago's gangster heydays in their gun-blazing, shoot-to-kill savagery, which often takes place on busy highways.

The heists are executed with military precision by heavily armed gangs of up to 20 AK-47 wielding men who ambush the vans and blaze away at them with armour-piercing bullets, plundering the loot and escaping in stolen vehicles. The gunmen's biggest haul so far was a hit at Bloemfontein airport in January that netted R23m in travellers' cheques, air tickets and jewellery. Another in Gauteng yielded Rl6m in cash. Two suspects in the Bloemfontein attack were subsequently arrested and R130,000 in travellers' cheques recovered.

The success of these raids and the huge rewards they seem to promise triggered off a spree of copycat attacks by enthusiastic but unskilled amateurs. These ended in a gory rout for the would-be gangsters who were outgunned by guards who are well able to deal with hoodlum greenhorns.

From former foes to partners in crime

The attacks on the cash vans are so professionally planned that investigators now believe they are carried out by a mini army of top ex-government soldiers and guerillas from South Africa and neighbouring Botswana and Mozambique. Elements of armies that fought each other for years in brutal insurgency wars have apparently joined forces and are now directing their military training at robbing vast sums of money from soft civilian targets.

Most of the weaponry probably comes from Mozambique where it is estimated that around 12 Russian-made AK-47 assault rifles were in circulation at the close of that country's civil war five years ago. Starving soldiers are willing to exchange their arms and ammunition for a few bags of maize meal with South African criminals, who then smuggle them over the border. The underground arsenal is further stocked with leftovers from the armed insurgencies in South Africa and Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe) where only a fraction of the struggles' weapons were surrendered.

Mr Charles Landman, a former senior South African police official, says too many lightly-trained South African ex-security force men are jobless. "They were made promises by the authorities that were not kept, and they feel hard done by," he points out. In addition, "thousands of trained (ANC and PAC) guerillas were mobilised during the struggle. Where do you think they are now?" It is no coincidence that the outbreak of attacks on cash carrying vehicles began in 1992, soon after the official halt to fighting between South African government forces and nationalist guerillas.

Mr Collin Gregor, managing director of SBV, South Africa's biggest cash transporting company, is convinced there is military training behind the heists. "They are planned to the last detail," he says. SBV is the only cash-in-transit company allowed to use automatic rifles and in February alone spent R1m on state-of-the art weapons that will give their drivers and guards a fighting chance against the raiders,

The political component

Speculation abounds, and is as persistently denied, that political parties are somehow involved in the heists and stockpiling the proceeds to fund their campaigns for next year's general election. The possibility has been suggested that the ANC itself might be behind some of the latest cash-in-transit robberies. A publication of the highly respected Helen Suzman Foundation questions whether the ANC is filling its election coffers through the rash of military-style attacks on security vans. Such allegations were given further currency by the spate of amnesty applications before the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) from individuals who claim they committed robberies with political objectives. "TRC officials remain tight-lipped on whether the applications will be heard," says the publication.

The TRC, chaired by Archbishop Desmond Tutu, granted 37 of the ANC's top leadership a blanket amnesty without them having to testify -- a move which infuriated opposition parties. Naturally, politicians outside of the government seized upon the allegations when they were published, and bombarded ANC safety and security minister Sydney Mufamadi in parliament with demands for an official inquiry into the issue. The IFP wanted to know whether the PAC was also involved.

Mr Mufamadi has dismissed the need for a probe and blames the raids on highly organised crime syndicates which, he says, include members both of the former liberation movements and the former government's security forces, but that most heists "are carried out by criminals who previously committed bank robberies."

Tightening the Iaager

In South Africans' crime-wave induced laager neurosis, the wagons are drawn even more closely together with revelations of shenanigans at the administrative high level.

The newly-appointed Gauteng premier, Mr Mathole Motshekga, is under investigation for the misuse of donor funds some years back. A government-appointed inquiry recommends the disbanding and dismissal of the entire board of the Central Energy Fund, the body that regulates South Africa's petroleum industry, after its chairman, Mr Don Mkhwanazi, handed his crony, Liberian Mr Emanuel Shaw II, a R3m consultative contract without following official tender guide-lines. The probe found that Mr Mkhwanazi had "a personal interest" in appointing Mr Shaw.

Furthermore, damning evidence comes to light that Gauteng's MEC for Safety and Security, Ms Jesse Duarte, may have been less than truthful in her account of a motor accident in a government car, that she has used tax-payers money to fly her pals to Portugal and generally mismanaged her department. The Eastern Cape provincial government is short by R500m to pay pensioners and must be bailed out by the central government. The same has happened, to a lesser degree, in the Northern Province. Probes are promised.

Every day brings fresh revelations of graft, corruption and sleaze. The media is hard-pressed to keep up with the tide of exposed mischief in the administration. Deputy-President Thabo Mbeki chastises the press for reporting only the bad things in South Africa and none of the good, causing one editor to invoke the metaphor of the press reporting only aeroplane crashes and none of the safe landings.

The national paranoia deepens as an embattled public imprisons itself behind the high-walled, electric fence barricades they call home and wonder how matters can be corrected at the bottom when they're in such a grubby state at the top.

Ivory tower prisoners?

20 years ago, it was the address every yuppy dreamed about. If you lived at Ponte, the towering cylinder of apartments that resembles an arrogant one-finger gesture on the brash Johannesburg skyline, you'd arrived! 20 years ago, everyone was dying to get in. Now, if a startling new plan takes off, the new inmates will be dying to get out.

If the owners have their way, Ponte city could be converted into a prison to mop up the growing number of criminals and suspects that are making South Africa's present prison capacity creak at the seams.

In the two decades since Ponte city's glory days, the ritz and glamour it shared with another Johannesburg landmark, the nearby Canton City and Towers, have faded and died in the creeping urban decay that has transformed Jo'burg's city centre into a squalid underground of hoodlums and hawkers, hookers and hitmen. The building itself has degenerated into a hangout for drug traffickers, prostitutes and robbers. The apartment building is also at the threshold of Hillbrow, once as fashionable as London's Chelsea but today South Africa's most crime-wracked area -- a gangsterland run by Nigerian druglords. Ironically, the apartments-to-prison cells plan is seen as a first step to winning the area back in a campaign of urban renewal.

"It has failed as an apartment building where people would wish to reside," owners concede. The envisaged correctional facility "would assist with providing a safe, secure, clean and attractive public environment," they maintain in a report submitted to the city council.

Mr Don Stuart of Vincemus Investments, the building's owner, says the complex could hold 2,000 awaiting-trial prisoners, accommodate six magistrate's courts, a police station and a mini-clinic.

The plan has horrified residents of neighbouring Houghton, an upmarket suburb of elegant million-rand homes in oak-lined avenues some 3km from Ponte. Councillor Mike Moriarty calls the proposal "totally inappropriate. It makes no sense to locate such a facility in a densely-populated residential area. The building was never designed for such purposes." Residents and neighbours have 30 days in which to lodge objections.

Looking for lockups

The Ponte prison proposal joins a growing list of other ideas of what to do with South Africa's burgeoning prisoner population, as police and security forces grapple with a crime wave of unprecedented proportions. South Africa's prisons have a combined capacity of around 100,000 inmates -- the prison population is currently nudging 150,000. Jail breaks, as many as 100 a month, are commonplace as correctional service warders struggle to keep felons locked away in prisons that are in many cases antiquated and inadequate. As South Africa's Minister for Correctional Services, Dr Sipo Mzimela puts it: "We face a national epidemic of crime. This is a time for drastic correctional measures."

Other suggestions that have been given serious consideration by the government include:

* Abandoned gold mines being converted into jails. "There would be only one way in, and that's five kilometres straight down, and only one way out --five kilometres straight up," explains the proposer of the scheme. "I guarantee that just a short spell in a mine cell would rehabilitate the most hardened criminal for life." The concept is intriguing to many in authority but has been roundly condemned by human rights organisations and prisoners' associations who contend that it would be inhumane to lock people away without human contact or sight of the sun. Minister Mzimela counters by saying: "We have to come down hard because some criminals have the idea that prison is not such a bad place to be."

* Passenger ships being converted into floating prisons instead of being scrapped at the end of their cruise life. Union Castle mailships that had their heydays in the 1950s have been mentioned. The small cabins and narrow companionways are considered to be ideal for prison conversion, at a reasonably affordable cost. Escape would be close to impossible if the ship was anchored distantly off-shore in hostile waters. The sea off the far northern Zululand coast has been mentioned as a possible point of anchorage. It is the feeding ground of the notorious Zambezi grey man-eating shark.

Also on offer to the South African government are two 'flotels' each with a capacity of 1,200 convicts, costing about R40m each to buy, convert and tow to a protected anchorage in South Africa within four to six months. Land-based prison facilities of the same capacity would cost around R600m and take four years to build. The two hulks, the Arabia and the Ukrania, are anchored at Odessa in the Ukraine and have been viewed by a government correctional services delegation headed by Dr Mzimela.
COPYRIGHT 1998 IC Publications Ltd.
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Author:Nevin, Tom
Publication:African Business
Date:Apr 1, 1998
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