In South Africa, a burning fear

SUN JOURNAL

Flamethrower: Residents worried by the high rate of carjackings are installing a new weapon that turns up the heat on criminals.

February 03, 1999|By Gilbert A. Lewthwaite | Gilbert A. Lewthwaite,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

JOHANNESBURG, South Africa -- Carjackers in this crime-beleaguered country these days risk a hot reception -- a driver-operated flamethrower.

It is the latest device to join the armory of personal security weapons deployed by an exasperated citizenry.

Already, many South Africans will not venture out of their high-walled, electric-fenced, burglar-barred and -alarmed homes in their immobilizer-equipped cars without a gun. Now comes the newest, hottest deterrent -- and the first person to order the product is a police superintendent.

The auto-mounted flamethrower's inventor, Charl Flourie, insists: "I am the last person to want to burn anyone. But if someone attacks you, they will kill you, they will rape you and they will maim you."

The device is built into the car doors and is operated by a button beside the foot pedals. It sends a man-high fireball up to two yards from the car, engulfing the hijacker without endangering the passengers or damaging the auto's paint work.

Operating it requires much less movement than pulling a gun and therefore -- theoretically, at least -- involves less risk of provoking the hijacker to shoot.

"It's a pity one has to resort to such extreme measures," says Flourie. "But if my wife stops in the driveway [a frequent venue for carjackings] and these people attack her, I would rather she has this system than not."

Carjacking is a common crime here, with the stolen vehicles usually driven quickly into the depressed townships surrounding large cities to be stripped for parts, illegally reregistered through corrupt officials or exported to neighboring countries by crime syndicates.

For every 100,000 South Africans, 32.7 carjackings occurred between January and November last year, according to official figures -- up from 29.1 over the same period of 1997.

Based on a population of 40.5 million, that translates into 13,276 car carjackings in 11 months -- more than 1,000 a month, or 30 a day. Fewer than one in 10 such cases winds up in court, and only one in 50 ends in a conviction.

Johannesburg, at the center of the province of Gauteng, is the carjacking capital, with more than double the rate of any other province. It had 113 hijacks per 100,000 population in 1997, the latest annual figures available.

A recent survey by the Star, a Johannesburg daily newspaper, identified evening as the hijackers' favorite time to strike, with the crowded rush-hour roads offering the criminals opportunity to merge quickly with the rest of the traffic. This makes it impossible for the police to catch the hijacker without air support, which they can't afford.

Other high-risk times are exiting or entering a gated driveway, at traffic lights and stop signs, or in parking lots, many of which are patrolled by private security forces.

It is also dangerous to pick up hitchhikers or stop on isolated roads. Hijackers sometimes wear blue uniforms and flash blue lights to trick motorists. They also force cars off the roads or put nails out to puncture tires.

Men are more likely than women to be hijacked, simply because there are more male drivers and they spend more time on the roads. Blacks are more likely to be hijacked than whites, partly because they are more likely to be near the troubled townships.

The police give this profile of a typical hijacker: the product of a macho-man subculture, with very low self-esteem; ready to use violence without respect for human life; willing to join a crime syndicate; uses drugs or alcohol to bolster courage; and sometimes resorts to "muti" -- magical medicine -- from traditional healers for protection against bullets.

Facing such an adversary, it is hardly surprising that South Africans have given a warm reception to Flourie's flamethrower. He has, he says, received 800 orders for what is appropriately marketed as the Blaster.

The Blaster works from a canister of liquefied gas, and, according to Fourie, is safer in an accident than an auto's gasoline tank.

It is activated by a key and operated by the foot button. This means that it can be switched off when the driver feels there is no danger of attack.

"You wouldn't have it on if you were driving across the desert," says Fourie. Once activated, however, it is ready for instant use.

"It is used for the specific purpose of saving your property or your life," says Fourie, adding that the flame would administer burns and possibly blind someone but would not be lethal.

"The way I see it, we have had our minds turned round so much, that we tend to protect the hijacker now," he adds, noting the emphasis on prisoner and human rights here.

"They should be thinking of my life. When you walk up to my car with a gun, you are not thinking about the family I will leave behind. Why should we consider the hijacker? He is a murderer. He has no rights, but I have a right to protect myself and my car."

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