In a state of fear

There is a murder every 29 minutes in the new South Africa. No wonder, then, that blacks and whites alike feel under siege. Robert Block reports
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What is it like to hold someone's life in your hands? What goes through your mind in those first tense moments after you pull the gun, when the adrenaline starts to flow and your victim cowers before you?

The reformed Soweto criminal pulled at his plaited locks, shifted slightly on the bench where he sat and considered the questions carefully. Finally, after chewing it over in his mind for about a minute, he said: "When you point a gun at somebody, you must not have any feelings. You can't allow yourself to feel any pity for the person you hold the gun against because you might be easily overpowered by emotion.

"Just pretend you will shoot at any time. You must threaten the person so he will give you what you want. All you want when you hold a gun to somebody is for that person to respond as quickly as possible because there might be other people who are watching as you are hijacking the car. So you must create the impression that you will shoot at any time.

"Don't listen to his pleas. If he tells you about his son, you say, 'Shut up. I don't want to know about your son.' You must kick them out of what they are telling you because they are always telling you that they have got children. They are always pleading, 'Don't kill me'.

"All you think about is the money and getting away from the scene of the crime as quickly as possible. But if he moves, you must shoot because you never know if he might be reaching for a gun. And nobody wants to die. Even criminals don't want to die."

Kere Nyawo is a playwright, but this is not a scene from his latest work. It is his own confession. Until 1992, Nyawo belonged to the most feared and hated category of all South African criminals, the carjacker. Retired now, he has found his salvation in theatre and in the Positive Arts Society, which he formed to give other ex-convicts a way out through drama therapy and craftwork. Before that, his speciality was trucks. Loaded with goods, any lorry was fair game; empty, it had to be a Mercedes-Benz. He said he did not kill anyone because he had never had to, but he was prepared to do it.

South Africa is in the midst of a violent crime explosion, the like of which has seldom been experienced by any country in peace time. The daily toll of lost lives and violated property in South Africa is more reminiscent of wartime statistics than of a society lurching towards normality and integration.

According to preliminary figures compiled by the National Crime Information Management Centre of the South African police, during the first seven months of last year there were more than one million reported serious crimes, including 18,000 rapes, 46,000 armed robberies, 186,000 assaults, 55,000 vehicle thefts and 10,000 murders - about one every 29 minutes.

Whereas political violence once dominated the country's headlines, now newspapers carry dozens of stories every day about murder, armed robberies, child abuse and domestic violence. Many people, both black and white, live behind locked doors and barred windows as virtual prisoners to their fear of crime.

Behind the high walls and razor wire that surround houses in Johannesburg's plush white suburbs, crime is the most common topic of dinner party conversations. In black townships and squatter camps, where residents live without the benefit of fortifications, people are in constant fear of gangs which terrorise their neighbourhoods.

For many South Africans, fear of crime has reached breaking point. The Sunday papers are filled every week with stories of privileged whites leaving the country, and crime is the excuse they give for their self- imposed exile.

Derek Sumpton is a financial adviser often consulted by young white professionals who are considering leaving the country. He says the people who come to see him welcome the political transformation taking place in South Africa but say they have had enough of violence, burglaries and hijackings.

For those determined to stay, new housing projects are built entirely behind high walls in what some pundits have called "siege architecture". Sales of detached houses on large plots, of the kind which once made Johannesburg suburbs the envy of the world, are threatening to collapse. People instead are paying extortionate prices for "cluster homes" in enclosed developments - the residential equivalent of the wagon circle Boer farmers used to protect themselves from hostile natives.

Less than a year ago, the "new" South Africa was considered a "must see" by the travel industry because of its miraculous democratic transformation and Nelson Mandela, the world's most famous prisoner-turned-president. Now its reputation as the most violent place on earth outside of a war zone is turning many would-be visitors away. South Africa has become the world's new Wild West, and its biggest city, Johannesburg, my home, is a contemporary Tombstone.

It is estimated that those people who can afford to, spend 15 per cent of their disposable income on security measures such as bars, grilles, panic buttons and dogs. Every night before I go to sleep, I make sure that my panic button is within easy reach of the bed. It is, after my brand-new burglar bars, the one indulgence I have granted my own anxiety. Push the small blue switch on the portable key chain and radio-linked alarms will ring in some not-too-distant dispatcher's control room: within minutes my garden will be crawling with the promised "instant armed response" provided by a private security service.

That's the theory, at least, but it is a false security blanket. Caspar Niemann, a Johannesburg businessman, has been the victim of 17 burglaries in the past 14 months and five armed robberies in one 10-day period in December alone. His alarm system has proved useless. During the last burglary about pounds 75,000 worth of children's clothes were taken from one of his shops in the centre of town. "The alarm went off at 4.20am, yet neither the armed response company I suscribe to nor the police responded," he told the Johannesburg Star newspaper.

The police and the government have come under fire for the escalating crime wave. In the past year, since Mr Mandela first promised to "take the war to the criminals", government has cut the police budget, maintained a police hiring freeze, ordered juvenile offenders to be held in low-security "welfare lockups" and tinkered unconvincingly with ways of tightening bail rules.

After a great public outcry, and with reports of white flight reaching fever pitch, the government only recently released emergency funding to the police and has taken some steps to halt the indiscriminate release of juvenile criminals back into the community. Last week, the national police commissioner, George Fivaz, warned that unless his forces received adequate funding, South Africa risked becoming a "gangster state".

The overall impression is that the government has no strategic vision. Until now its overwhelming concern has been civil rights protection for suspects and convicts, which is understandable after the lack of such safeguards during apartheid. However laudable, the sentiment has not been matched with firm steps to harden penalties for serious crimes and make the police - a largely demoralised and, in part, corrupt force - more efficient.

The fact of the matter is that crime pays in South Africa, and pays well. It pays because the vast majority of offenders escape capture. By the police's own reckoning, they solve only about a quarter of all reported robberies, 15 per cent of auto theft and 19 per cent of house burglaries. But such statistics say nothing of the actual conviction rate. Many of those arrested walk free because of poorly prepared police dockets, weak prosecutions and an undermanned, overwhelmed court system.

The deterioration of South Africa's police and criminal justice system, however, is not a sudden phenomenon. It all stems from apartheid. The white-minority governments' preoccupation with state security, which allowed detention of suspects without trial, corrupted the judicial process and created a police force with little regard for proper procedure.

At the same time, the liberation struggle's campaign to make the country ungovernable fostered a violent culture of lawlessnes and a distrust of authority, especially "white" authority structures, such as the police.

The result is that ordinary South Africans, fed up with being the victims of violent crime, are no longer relying on the police to catch the bad guys. The more innocent are forming neighbourhood watch schemes, while the most reactionary have decided to take the law into their own hands. In some extreme cases communities are drawing up their own penal code and are forming their own courts to mete out punishments ranging from beatings to lynchings.

Several crime-wracked Johannesburg suburbs are patrolled by what amount to private police forces. In Yeoville, a trendy Johannesburg neighbourhood of whites and blacks, the local traders' association has hired Hells Angels to watch the streets. And in White City in Soweto, neighbourhoods are patrolled by a band of heavy-fisted teenagers calling themselves Youth Action Against Crime.

At the same time, there is another factor driving fear in the white community: racism. Crime has become the latest euphemism for black South Africans. When whites say that they want to move away from crime, what they really mean is that they want to get away from blacks.

Even in the black community there are different attitudes to criminals who prey on whites and those who attack their own community. "The people in the location [township] hate those criminals who do crime in the location, but they like those criminals who go to the white man's land," says Nyawo.

But contrary to popular perceptions and media hype, Johannesburg's northern suburbs score comparatively low in at least one of the most feared crimes - car hijackings - when compared with black townships.

According to a suburb-by-suburb breakdown in Johannesburg, where 75 per cent of all South African carjackings take place, motorists are far more likely to get hijacked in Soweto than anywhere in the white areas of the city. In the first six months of 1995 there were 665 carjackings in Soweto and only 49 in Sandton, one of the country's biggest, most prosperous white suburbs.

There is also reason to believe that the crime scourge may not be quite as bad as the statistics indicate. Police and insurers say that up to 70 per cent of all reported carjackings are falsified to swindle insurance companies.

According to Superintendant Tinus Odendal of the police's vehicle anti- theft unit, some cars were recovered across South Africa's borders before the "hijacking" had even taken place. Arrested syndicate members have also confessed that they bought some of the cars that were supposed to have been stolen.

Nyawo believes that the only way to solve the crime is through education and by giving people a way off the streets, either through employment or by teaching them skills. At a recent rehersal of his latest play, Hola Majita, which is about the brutality of prison life, Nyawo pointed out that most of those in the production are ex-convicts who would be back on the street if not for drama.

"Look around you. There are no recreational facilities in the location. Young people are bored. They stand on street corners with nothing to do. There are no places where they can learn skills. Crime is one of the biggest employers here. More police will not help. Harder laws will only make harder criminals. These people need something to do," he said. "They need to know the truth of the harm they are doing to their brothers and sisters. Above all they need hope."