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Chattering classes take to the bunker

The panic button lurks by my bed - it is my radio-link defence against a crime wave that is Johannesburg's nightmare. By day, the sweeping northern suburbs of South Africa's biggest city seem one of the more privileged places on earth. Street upon leafy street shelters suburban villas, bungalows and palatial residences in sculptured gardens, many available for the price of a middling London flat.

But with the pitch-black African night comes a sense of caution, a lack of stopping at street lights and a locking of bedroom doors. Nearly 200 Johannesburg homes were burgled one recent night. And the perpetrators are hardly ever caught.

Hit the panic button and the theory is that a hellish ringing of alarms will break out and within minutes my garden will be swarming with the promised ``instant armed response''.

Everybody has panic buttons but the burglaries go on and on. And everyone has a story to tell. A hushed period seems traditional during every dinner or party for the conversation to home in on close shaves, tips to defeat housebreaking and news of macabre murders. The relish in the telling is especially sharp for a tender newcomer.

"We're not talking neighbourhood watch. We're talking state of siege," a television commercial-maker told me. "Everybody's house in my street has been burgled, except ours. And then my car was stolen last week. There was violence twice and one person was killed."

A top Johannesburg columnist spoke of her "visual orgasm" at the sight of one of the new electric fences on top of walls. But doubters on a chat show said even high-voltage wire is no use against determined intruders armed with a rubber car mat.

Stopping for badly needed petrol in a district where I had recently seen a man dragging his woman home along the pavement, the pump attendant voiced surprise at my innocence as groups of apparently aimless youths drifted over the forecourt. "You don't want to stop here, man. No one does."

"But isn't that a mobile police station there on the edge of your garage?" I asked. "Sure, man. But they just watch," he replied.

A call to the Johannesburg police department elicited pleas for understanding when few statistics were immediately to hand to prove right or wrong a public perception of dramatically rising crime. "It varies by district, and reporting of crime is changing. In central Johannesburg, we don't have a crime crisis. We have lots of men on patrol," one spokesman said. But then he added: "outsiders bring crime in with them, you see, like when they bring in a handbag."

An insurance company found that theft of cars in South Africa rose 46 per cent last year. Political murders have declined since last April's multi-racial elections. But the guns no longer needed in regional wars have flooded in to be used by ordinary criminals: seizures of weapons have doubled in the past year. An AK-47 assault rifle costs less than £100, and criminal violence kills people every day.

The police are demoralised and undermanned. Few are visible outside stations in the crime-plagued townships and squatter camps.

In the place of police, private security firms are doing a roaring trade. All cars must be equipped with complicated immobilisers. Trucks are even tracked by satellite, in case they should be hijacked.

Rising crime is also plaguing the new black middle classes. A beauty product magnate, Herman Mashaba, told a magazine that in the past year he had lost three trucks to hijackers and a factory to apparent arson. ``Crime is destroying business. We need to bring back hanging and do away with the Bill of Rights,'' he said in an ironic echo of far-right white opinion.

A bank manager told how burglars were caught by an armed response team in his garden-and-pool property in a former all-white suburb. The burglars apologised when they saw he was black. ``The team asked what I should do with them. You know, they usually beat them up. I had a pang of conscience, but then I said, do whatever you want. Otherwise, this crime will kill us all.''