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

March 23, 1997|By Gilbert A. Lewthwaite | Gilbert A. Lewthwaite,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

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.

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