Guns KO South Africa's sporting image



It wasn't exactly the thrill boxing fans were hoping for when South Africa's middleweight champion, Simon Maseko, and his English opponent, Warren Stowe, both hit the canvas at the same time in round seven at a Cape Town arena on Sunday. The men were floored by a hail of bullets, not punches.

Television viewers around the world watched in amazement as boxers and spectators alike dived for cover when gunmen blasted the ticket table during a robbery attempt at the Guguletu sports centre. A cashier was killed instantly just 30 feet from the ring. A ricochet bullet grazed the leg of a boxing trainer. Four robbers then fled the scene empty-handed amid the pandemonium.

The attack brought an abrupt end to the fight, shock to international television audiences and cries of outrage from South Africans tired of the violent crime which has given their country the reputation as the most dangerous place in the world outside a war zone.

According to government figures, a serious crime is committed in South Africa every 17 seconds, more than 50 people are murdered every day and there is a robbery every six minutes. Whereas political violence once dominated the country's headlines, now newspapers carry dozens of stories every day about murder, violent car hijackings, armed robberies, child abuse and wife-beatings. Many people, both black and white, live behind locked doors as virtual prisoners to their fear of crime.

Within the high walls and razor wire that surround houses in Johannesburg's plush white suburbs, crime is the standard topic of dinner party conversations, while in many black townships and squatter camps, residents shun gangs that terrorise their neighbourhoods.

The perceived failure of President Nelson Mandela's government to combat crime was a key platform of parties both to the left and right on the political spectrum during local elections this month. While fighting crime also tops the agenda of Mr Mandela's African National Congress, the President says lawlessness is the legacy of apartheid and cannot be resolved overnight.

But delays pose danger. Last week, South Africa's Police Commissioner, George Fivaz, warned that violent crime was threatening the country's 18-month-old democracy. "It is not an understatement to say that crime has reached such proportions that it is becoming a grave threat to democracy," Mr Fivaz said.

"If not dealt with more efficiently, our people will become disillusioned with the fundamental rights which underpin South Africa's miracle democracy ... resulting in mob justice, hysteria and unleashing an even greater cycle of violence," he added.

Signs of what some commentators have called "jungle justice" have started to emerge. Twice last week the Sowetan, South Africa's biggest selling newspaper, published on its front page photographs of would-be car hijackers lying in their own blood after being shot dead by an intended victim. The photos caused howls of outrage among more liberal people, but mostly they have been greeted with applause. "Bravo" and "it's about time" were the most common responses during a radio talk show about the gruesome pictures.

South Africa has a car culture as great as that in the United States and "carjacking" has become the post-apartheid successor to the "necklace" - the burning tyre once placed around the necks of township informers - in the minds of most South Africans. The violence associated with car theft was headlined again last week when Lee Bennett, a British doctor who emigrated in 1978, was shot dead through his car window in front of his 10-year-old daughter. The thieves could not open the locked doors and fled.

The extent to which South Africa has been dogged by its reputation was brought home last month when Disneyworld in Florida rejected the country's application to open a pavilion in its Epcot Center because, in the words of Disney officials, South Africa was "too violent" and most Americans would not want to travel there.

Violence may cost South Africa more than an exhibition booth. In the wake of Sunday's incident, sporting officials warned yesterday that unless the country was able to bring crime under control, Cape Town would have no chance in its bid to stage the 2004 Olympic Games.