South Africa's crime wave No one is immune: Victims range from Mandela and cabinet ministers to ordinary people.

April 07, 1997

SOUTH AFRICA HAS always been an extremely violent society. Under apartheid rule, most of that violence, though, was contained in black townships.

In Johannesburg's Soweto, it was not unusual to count 20 or more murders and untold rapes and assaults in a single weekend. No one really knew the exact numbers because few of the non-fatal crimes were investigated or reported to police.

During the three years since the end of apartheid, crime has spilled over into the formerly white areas. Car hijackings are now so common that Johannesburg's traffic chief says it is perfectly acceptable for motorists to run red lights if they feel stopping would make them vulnerable to hijackers. South Africa's murder rate is estimated to be nearly eight times that of the United States; the number of rapes is three times higher.

"This is our daily diet -- murder, rape and horrors," says a provincial politician whose father was shot and wounded in a recent car hijacking. "It's everyone's No. 1 concern."

No one is immune. President Nelson Mandela's home has been burglarized, as has been the official residence of Deputy President Thabo Mbeki. Both burglaries were inside jobs -- by bodyguards. In a raid on a ringleader's house, police found the defense minister's clock radio, the finance minister's gold watch, the correctional service minister's leather jacket, the education minister's bathroom scales and the welfare minister's electric frying pan, according to the Mail & Guardian newspaper.

Last year, Mr. Mandela said that poor morale and outright police corruption were at the heart of crime-fighting problems. In the province of Northern Cape, which has 85 police stations, there have been no recruits in three years and the force is 44 percent below its authorized strength. Several other provinces find themselves in a similar situation.

Unless the crime wave is checked, it will threaten South Africa's international image. Already many decision makers are worried that the country will lose its chance to be the first African host to the Olympics (in 2004) due to growing violence. Crime could also discourage much-needed foreign investment.

Pub Date: 4/07/97

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