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Rising Crime in South Africa

Hundreds protest rising crime rates in South Africa credit: Anadolu Ajansi

A searing debate of soaring crime as a celebrated murderer walks free Looming release of Olympic star Pistorius spurs South African clash on violence The Washington Times

December 6, 2023

by Geoff Hill

JOHANNESBURG — The impending release of South Africa’s most celebrated convicted killer is fueling a national debate about why the country ranks among the world’s most dangerous places when it comes to murder. The chatter on radio talk shows here has been dominated by the scheduled January 5 release of Olympic sprinter Oscar Pistorius, set to go free after serving 10 years of a 13-year sentence for the shooting of his girlfriend. Some are praising the early parole decision while others say Pistorius should remain behind bars for much longer. What’s not in dispute is that the Pistorius case is part of a much larger, much bloodier phenomenon, and that many here are ready to consider harsher means to reverse it. By one ranking South Africa has the world’s third-highest murder rate, behind only Jamaica and Honduras and six times the U.S. average, with no other African nation even close. Polls show public support for life imprisonment and even for the restoration of the death penalty — scrapped in 1995 — to try to curb the mayhem. Pistorius, dubbed the “Blade Runner,” lost his legs as a child and in 2012 became the first amputee to compete in the Olympic Games. With prosthetic limbs strapped on at the knee, he had already dominated the Paralympics, and toured the world giving lectures on the challenge of overcoming disability. On the night of Valentine’s Day 2012, he shot dead his girlfriend Reeva Steenkamp at their home in Johannesburg. Pistorius claimed he thought an intruder was in the house, but after several hearings the court returned a verdict of murder. Even now, the runner maintains the fatal shot was an accident, but his notorious legal ordeal and now early release point to a larger controversy: Survivors of criminal injury say homicides and violent attacks have become too commonplace, and the only crimes that get attention involve someone who is either famous or has links to the ruling African National Congress (ANC). David Mpande, 48, lives in the black dormitory township of Tembisa north of Johannesburg. The shacks there are crowded together, made mostly of wood and iron, often with a single kitchen and bathroom serving several homes. “My house has been robbed twice this year,” he said, “and I called the police but they did nothing. Murders are common and it’s rare for anyone to be caught. But if a government minister has a cellphone stolen, police will catch the thieves by sunset.” He said he admired the courage of Pistorius in overcoming his handicap, “but if he was not famous, I wonder if anyone would have cared about the murder of his girlfriend.” Statistics bear out Mr. Mpande’s claims. Fewer than one in 10 of the more than 23,000 murders committed annually across the country results in an arrest and conviction. Late November, President Cyril Ramaphosa addressed an Africa-wide conference on violence, and called for men to do more to halt the murder of women, known here as “femicide.” Billboard campaigns and NGO programs are dominated by the issue of women and children falling victim to attack, but government statistics tell a different story: In the latest figures, women made up just 14 % of murder victims and children accounted for 5%. But it is men, 81%, who mostly lose their lives to killers. It can’t be caught in the statistics, but the brutality of many of the attacks have only amplified the debate over what to do. In July, an elderly white couple, Theo and Marlinda Bekker, had their farmhouse invaded 60 miles south east of Johannesburg. The assailants bludgeoned Bekker with an iron bar then slit his throat. He bled to death on the floor while they tried to suffocate his wife with a plastic bag over her head. Marlinda Bekker survived and later identified four teenagers who had stolen the family car and were apprehended by police. Attacks on white-owned farms happen almost daily — more than 300 in 2022 with 50 farmers killed — and can be equally grisly. Rape is common and bodies are sometimes left dismembered. In July, Elon Musk, the Pretoria-born billionaire and global entrepreneur, went on his own X social media site to post his concern about a “genocide of white people” in his home country. Black victims But despite the outcry, the numbers show that the murder crisis is even more acute for the country’s black majority, where homicides are more frequent but attract far less media coverage. In Pretoria, the government has been slow to release crime figures by race even though every docket includes the victim’s ethnic group. What research that has been done shows that while white South Africans make up around 8% of the population, they account for less than 2% of murder victims. “These are opportunistic crimes,” said human rights lawyer Gregory Stanton, founder of the Washington-based Genocide Watch. “Farmers are often vulnerable, living on isolated properties far from neighbors or the police.” He said a review of the cases over many years showed they were occasionally carried out by workers who had not been paid or had some other grievance, and often the attackers were high on drugs and alcohol which could account for the violence. But overwhelmingly, the assailants, almost always armed with guns, “are out to rob the farmhouse and won’t hesitate to kill if they are challenged.” The soaring murder rates have economic repercussions as well. Tourism is a key part of the South African economy and the U.S. dominates among long-haul travelers coming on safari. The industry has stressed that visitors to the country are rarely touched by crime. The famous Kruger National Park stretches across 8,000 square miles of wilderness with remote lodges far from the nearest settlement while in the cities, hotels, resorts and shopping malls have round the clock security. South Africa is among the world’s top surfing destinations and on the crowded beaches, bathers leave their belongings on a towel in the sand while they swim and it’s rare for anything to be stolen. Surveys show that most tourists finish their holidays and depart unaware that a problem with crime even exists. In Pretoria, U.S. Ambassador to South Africa Reuben E. Brigety told The Washington Times that tourism was “a symbol of the enduring and growing ties” between the two countries, representing “a critical component of our shared economic prosperity.” But Mr. Brigety also stressed that the State Department “has no higher priority abroad than the safety and security of U.S. citizens overseas,” and he encouraged anyone planning a trip to visit the department’s website, check the page devoted to South Africa, watch for “alerts” that may have been posted, and register with the Smart Traveler Enrollment Program. Political fallout The murder debate is spilling over into the political arena as well. With an election due by May 2024 and the ANC polling below 45%, focus groups have found crime and unemployment high on the list of concerns, especially among the black majority. In some cases, communities mete out their own justice. On the night of December 1, police say a vigilante group at the Diepsloot township near Johannesburg tied up seven men alleged to be running a crime gang and used gasoline to burn them alive. In the wealthy suburbs, often within view of the townships, residents have six-foot-high concrete walls topped with razor-wire or an electric fence. By 9 p.m, it is rare to see pedestrians on the street. Private security vehicles move constantly around the suburbs, waiting for a client to press a panic button if an intruder enters the property. But the majority of murder victims are young black men killed by other young black men. With millions unemployed and little in the way of welfare, breaches of the law have become so common that assaults and even murders often fail to make the news. One of the country’s best-known activists on crime is journalist and broadcaster Yusuf Abramjee, who said overcoming the problem was vital to South Africa’s future. “Blood, bodies and bullets have become a way of life,” he said, “and gang warfare, especially in the Cape Town area, is on the increase. Poverty and unemployment are an issue, but we also have a lot of organized crime, and these people are motivated by greed. They drive luxury vehicles and live in upmarket homes.” Mr. Abramjee said it was the poor who often bore the brunt of South Africa’s violent crime problem. In recent years there have been attacks on migrants from the rest of the continent, vast numbers of whom have entered illegally over South Africa’s 2,900-mile land border that stretches from the Atlantic to the Indian Ocean. They come from neighboring countries like Zimbabwe and Mozambique but also Nigeria, Malawi, Sudan, and increasingly Pakistan and Bangladesh. At Genocide Watch, Mr. Gregory Stanton said this posed a far greater risk for mass violence than the farm attacks. “In any country, one death is too many and we must not ignore the plight of white farmers. Many are hate crimes. But there is no evidence of a plan to murder whites. Hate crimes without a plan do not constitute genocide. There are also worrying reports about xenophobia against black migrants,” he said. He added that the authorities had done little to control movement across the borders. “Mass unemployment has resulted in a level of misery for young, black South Africans that is hard for people in America to comprehend. This, in turn, has unleashed the resentment against foreigners.” But Mr. Abramjee insists that giving up is not an option. “It requires a combined approach, involving government, the police and communities,” he said. “It’s a war we have to win. And there must be the political will to fight crime. “Most of all,” he said, “our citizens need to rise up and say, ‘Enough is enough!’” Copyright © 2023 The Washington Times,

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