Whites dominate S. Africa gun licenses

January 04, 1994|By Michael Hill | Michael Hill,Johannesburg Bureau

JOHANNESBURG, South Africa -- The stories of South Africans and their guns are legion.

* Four armed men burst into a supermarket in a holdup. All are shot by shoppers who pull out their sidearms.

* There's a shootout between police and an armed suspect on a major highway. Several cars pull to a halt so their drivers can join the fight on the side of the police.

* Terrorists burst into a suburban Cape Town church and kill a dozen people before being driven away by a worshiper who had carried his gun to the service.

In any gathering of more than a few score white people in this country, the odds are that someone is carrying a gun.

And at every large gathering of right-wing whites, up to half the men in the crowd have guns strapped to their waist.

At last count, the tally of registered guns stood at just over 3.1 million. That does not seem like much for a country of almost 40 million, but, when you consider that almost every one of the guns is in the hands of South Africa's 5 million whites, you realize just how armed that population is.

But this is in a country where gun registration is the law of the land.

Every gun in South Africa, whether purchased from a store, privately obtained or even inherited, is not supposed to change hands without a license from the national government. In 1993, with the country's heavy violence causing a rise in gun purchases, it could have taken a month or more to get permits, which were handed out at a rate well above 1992's 537 a day.

South Africa has had its own form of very effective gun control, which essentially was that whites could have as many guns as they wanted while blacks could not have any.

That was enforced not by spelling it out in the law but by making local police commissioners the final arbiter of the licenses. This all-white bureaucracy rarely granted a license to a nonwhite. And while apartheid no longer exists, that bureaucracy and its prejudices still do.

"We know there is a great deal of discrimination against blacks in licensing guns," said Carl Niehaus of the African National Congress, the nation's largest black political group.

It is not at all unusual to hear of a break-in at a white farm resulting in the theft of 10 or 15 registered guns and perhaps a few unregistered ones.

Craig Kotze, spokesman for the Ministry of Law and Order, said that there is no legal limit on the number of weapons an individual can own. "But we do like to keep tabs on them," he said, claiming that registered firearms rarely present law enforcement with a problem.

"The problem is the supply of illegal weapons, mainly from Mozambique," he said.

During the years of struggle against apartheid, the ANC and other groups tried with little success to arm the country's black population. Now, as the ANC prepares to take the reins of government in April elections, that wish might become one of its worst nightmares.

That is because the guns that have streamed into the black townships since negotiations replaced armed political struggle are contributing to the rising levels of violence, perhaps the biggest immediate problem the new government will face.

These weapons are being used not only to fuel the battles between political, ethnic and other rivals, but also for the tasks common to such weapons in poor communities around the world -- crime and gang violence.

Doctors at Natalspruit Hospital on the border between the troubled townships of Katlehong and Tokoza east of Johannesburg say that before 1993 most of their emergency work was treating the results of clubbings and knifings. Since then, it is the much more deadly results of gunfire.

NTC The weapons vary from crude, homemade models to common handguns, but the one of choice is the traditional symbol of the revolutionary struggle -- the AK-47. This brutally effective, Russian-invented automatic weapon was the staple of the Communist bloc during the Cold War.

And it is the end of the Cold War that is in part responsible for its flooding into South Africa. As the fight between a left-wing government and right-wing rebels in neighboring Mozambique has come to an end, the hundreds of thousands of AK-47s used by both sides in that fight have come to the open market.

Although there is little money in South Africa's townships, there is even less in Mozambique, so South Africa is where the weapons head. Reportedly, an AK-47 can be bought in Mozambique for as little as $10. The price multiplies several times by the time the gun makes it over the border to township streets.

No one has an accurate tally on the number of unregistered weapons in the country, but estimates range up to over a million. If negotiations succeed in ending the fighting in nearby Angola, AK-47s from there are expected to exacerbate the problem.

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