Toy AK-47 rifle has S. Africans up in arms

December 23, 1992|By Jerelyn Eddings | Jerelyn Eddings,Johannesburg Bureau

JOHANNESBURG, South Africa -- A toy gun has sparked a Christmas season controversy in South Africa, where peace and good will are waging an uphill battle to replace murder and mayhem as the nation's preoccupation.

It is not just any gun. It's a plastic miniature version of the AK-47, once the assault rifle of the anti-apartheid movement and now the favorite weapon of assassins and thieves.

"Much of the current brutality in this country is associated with the AK-47," said Graham Simpson of the Center for the Study of Violence, an independent research organization. "They are so symbolic as a weapon in this country."

He said it was "particularly crass" to sell the gun as a children's toy given its role in South Africa's bloody violence, in which more than 12,000 people have died since 1984.

Police say more people are killed with AK-47s than with any other weapon. Black train commuters are fired on with AK-47s. White farm families are assaulted with AK-47s. And bank robberies are committed each week with AK-47s.

Police often seize large caches of them stored around the country or smuggled in from Mozambique, where a long civil war is ending, and the rifle is losing its usefulness.

And now they are on department store shelves as toys. Many adults are not amused.

Some called a local newspaper, the Citizen, to complain about the plastic gun. Others telephoned a radio call-in show to express outrage. The Citizen ran a picture of a young black boy inspecting an AK-47 in a downtown department store. The picture fueled public anger.

"In a society that is not as drenched in violence as ours, it would be a different issue," said the Rev. Paul Verryn, a Methodist minister who has worked with troubled township children.

"But to propagate this in a society that is not able to control the use of weapons is suicide for the nation," he said. "It's a statement of the state of our relationship with one another."

He also said he was struck by the sale of AK-47s as Christmas gifts.

"From a religious standpoint, to think we call this a season of peace is ludicrous. If there are any Christians buying these things they have missed the point," he said.

The Chinese-made toy AK-47 sells at department stores across South Africa for about $12 each.

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