Crime and violence stalk post-apartheid S. Africa Mandela government comes under pressure


JOHANNESBURG -- Violent crime has become a way of life -- and death -- in post-apartheid Johannesburg.

The stories never cease: A carjacked woman's face beaten in with an iron bar an armed holdup in a women's restroom three women raped in separate incidents while walking home last weekend a payroll guard shot dead and robbed 25 post offices in the area hit by armed gangs this year.

Crime is putting the government of President Nelson Mandela, frequently accused of being more focused on the rights of criminals than their victims, under extreme pressure to take stronger action, forcing it to free police officers from administrative duties for active patrols and to tighten bail standards.

"This is our daily diet -- murder, rape and horrors," said Jack Bloom, a member of the provincial legislature, whose father was shot and wounded in a carjacking last fall. "It's everyone's No. 1 concern. There's no doubt about it. It's a dinner table topic, and it's obsessive."

After three separate knifepoint robberies of American, British and German tourists in the city center here last weekend, police warned visitors to take police escorts on tours of the city's central business district.

So frequently are cars hijacked at traffic signals that the city's traffic chief advised motorists earlier this month to approach intersections with caution and if they feel threatened to drive through red lights.

It is not just here in the nation's commercial capital that crime is endemic. Farmers blocked roads across the country last week to protest rural crime and corruption.

South Africans are being forced by the ever-present threat of violence to live in virtual prisons, surrounded by high walls, electric fences, remote-controlled gates, heavy locks and electronic alarms, with "panic buttons" in every room to summon immediate response to intruders -- not from the police, but from private security companies.

Until January of this year, the family of a business consultant and his wife, a real estate agent, didn't have the security devices on their home in the affluent suburb of Observatory.

The white couple, named Clive and Jane, would talk only if their last names were not used.

"We were a family that never felt threatened or anything like that," said Jane. "On the second of January, three black guys came into my home, tied us up, robbed us at gunpoint, threatened us with violence, kicked us a few times, and before they left they gang-raped our two daughters."

The two daughters, ages 24 and 21, have left the country. One of the gang has been arrested; police are still searching for the other two.

Last Saturday evening nine men, armed with AK-47s and Uzis, burst into the home of another family after the gate was opened just long enough to allow a guest to enter.

The mother, son and the guest were tied up while the thieves ransacked the place -- even taking curtains off the rods -- before being scared off by the husband.

"We are leaving the country. I actually cannot live like this another minute," said the husband, who also refused to be named.

So widespread has crime become throughout South Africa that the country's prison chief is seriously suggesting incarcerating violent offenders underground in unused gold mines.

'Horrific' murder rate

The murder rate is almost eight times that in the United States, according to Professor Ben Smit, director of the Department of Policing Science at the University of South Africa, Pretoria.

"It's horrific; really, it's horrific," said Smit, who has calculated that the 60 murders per 100,000 population here compare with eight per 100,000 in the United States and seven in the United Kingdom.

"There is a new dimension," he said. "In the past, a typical robbery scenario involved a person held up at the point of a knife. Today, in the present situation, a person is held up by a firearm and after he hands his money over, he will be shot as an afterthought."

Crime is worst in Johannesburg, with its population estimated at 4 million to 5 million, its dangerous downtown, affluent mostly white suburbs and explosive black and colored townships.

There were 1,000 rapes a month last year in the Johannesburg area, a 20 percent increase over two years, pushing the rape rate to three times the U.S. rate.

House burglaries were also up, but the murder rate and car thefts were down.

Nationally there is some hope that crime has peaked; only four of the 20 categories of major crimes -- rape, violent assault, robbery and illegal possession of firearms -- increased last year, while the rest stabilized or declined.

Chris De Kock, head police criminologist, predicted that the four would continue to increase: rape and assault because of improved reporting; robbery because of continuing social and economic divides; and illegal firearms because of their flow into the country from previous war zones in Angola and Mozambique.

He traced the acceleration of crime to the 1980s, when the movement of blacks was eased to support the white-run economy. After the end of apartheid in 1990, urbanization increased, he said, and so did crime.

"Most of your crime occurs in urbanized settings," he said, noting the growth of crime-spawning "informal settlements" around Johannesburg.

Racial factor is unclear

It is not known precisely who is doing what to whom in terms of ethnic groups because in post-apartheid South Africa no racially defined crime statistics are available.

Certainly, blacks are more victimized by random crime than whites, and most cannot afford the sort of self-protection to which the affluent are increasingly resorting.

A largely black protest march was held here the other day to demand the return of safe streets.

Ernest Mgcaleka, 27, still does not know who shot him at an outdoor concert or what the gunfight he found himself in the middle of was about.

"It's happening to anyone, any time," said Mgcaleka, who is black. He said a friend was stripped of his clothes when his car was hijacked. "We are good citizens of the country, and we are affected by crime. It looks like nothing is being done."

Frustration is added to fear because the understaffed, underpaid and undertrained police appear incapable of solving most crimes. Unresolved cases jumped 55 percent from 1993 to 1996, according to the Crime Information Management Center.

Not only do the police fail to make enough arrests, sometimes they are the ones committing the crimes.

The rate of murder, attempted murder and drunken driving is higher in police ranks than among the population at large.

In a controversial move, the government recently tightened restrictions on police use of firearms, bringing public concern and protests from the police union.

So South Africans are turning increasingly to providing their own security. Whether high wall or spiked fence, guard dogs or high-voltage defenses, the urge for protection has created a booming private security industry here.

Ranging from electric gates to rapid-response patrols and satellite tracking of stolen cars, the home security business is now doing an estimated $1.5 billion a year in sales, according to the Security Association of South Africa.

Frank Sims, the association's administrator, lists four reasons: the increasing threat of crime and the present instability of the country; the insistence by insurance companies on tight security; under-funding of crime prevention; and lack of effective policing.

Sims, whose son is a police officer, added: "What has happened, of course, is with the change over [to black majority rule] the society has become a much looser one.

"South Africans have never been subjected to anything like this before. It used to be very regimented.

"We have caught up very rapidly with the rest of the world."

Pub Date: 3/23/97

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