SA faces new enemy - crime

A gangster's boasts on radio have stunned a nation, writes Robert Block in Johannesburg
The subject, as it invariably is on South African radio talk shows these days, was car-jacking, the violent crime du jour of Johannesburg's gangsters and the scourge of the city's leafy white suburbs.

Was it true, the talk show hostess asked, that when a township crime boss was killed, his followers hijacked cars in his honour and then killed some innocent bystander to accompany their fallen companion to the underworld? Was it true that after a lucrative robbing spree, gangsters bought gallons of expensive brandy, poured it into buckets and washed their cars in pricey booze?

Urban legends proliferate in South Africa faster than the local rock rabbits, and none more so than those involving criminals and the wave of crime sweeping the country. The hostess insisted she was merely trying to separate fact from fiction. Nevertheless, she seemed unprepared for the answers she would receive from one caller in particular.

"Go ahead, Sofiso,'' she said just before the airwaves began to freeze with the chilling details of the senseless crime and violence that is tearing at the soft underbelly of South Africa today. Sofiso was a tsotsi, a gangster who called to explain, not justify, his lifestyle and customs. His matter of fact, pitiless testimony was terrifying.

"If there is a funeral, we hijack before the funeral," Sofiso said. "We target certain [read white] suburbs where we know we can find these cars easily, and we bring them back before the funeral. Let's say a funeral is on Saturday; we take the cars on Friday and hide them. On Saturday, we take them to the cemetery. There the cars will be seen, guns will be shot and two of the cars will be burnt in honour'' [of the dead].

These kinds of send-offs are known in the township gangster lingo as "kitchen parties''. Sometimes in the fray, people are killed by stray bullets, he said.

But what about killing innocents to accompany the dead? "This happens in prison. 'The 28' [an infamous gang] would do this. Sometimes, if a general died then his wife would be killed to accompany him. But on the outside this is not common. My gang, 'The 26', does not do this. But sometimes it does happen, people are killed.

"My favourite weapon is a 9mm 12-shooter,'' Sofiso said. "I don't know if you know that gun. Well, when I pull that trigger and the bullets are flying, well anything can happen.''

The hostess was audibly stunned. Certainly, she suggested, carjackers who stalked Johannesburg's privileged northern suburbs had limits. Surely they would not, for instance, threaten a mother and her baby, an elderly person, or a pregnant woman? Sofiso laughed: "I never heard of a situation where we had to get a car, we found it and then we left it."

Excerpts of that talk show were played for days after it was first broadcast. It was the topic of dinner conversations and, just days before the start of the Rugby World Cup, it was an uncomfortable reminder that South Africa suffers from the highest violent crime rate in the world outside a war zone. Hardly a day goes by without a notice in the newspapers of such and such having been shot and killed in a carjacking.

Political violence may have all but disappeared in South Africa with the exception of KwaZulu-Natal (where fighting between supporters of the African National Congress and the Zulu Inkatha Freedom Party never really ended), but criminal violence in the year since Nelson Mandela became President has exploded.

It was estimated that in the second half of 1994 a serious crime was being committed every 17 seconds; a murder every half hour, a housebreaking every two minutes. And things have got worse this year, according to Johannesburg police. More than 200 major crime syndicates are operating in South Africa, many with international links.

The whites are increasingly terrified and are beginning to fight back. In a neighbourhood in Sandton, Johannesburg's richest suburb, enraged residents set up a group called "Citizens Countering Crime" with the slogan "Don't emigrate, demonstrate!". With their own money, they have built a police precinct, sponsored a mounted police unit and are pressing the government to increase the national police budget.

The growing crime rate presents perhaps the greatest threat to the aim of Mr Mandela and the ANC to build a stable, relatively violence-free country. Part of the reason for the crime wave is the lack of job opportunities for the black majority. The official unemployment rate last year was 33 per cent, but the proportion of South Africans without a formal job is closer to half the population.

But crime in South Africa is not just about the need to survive, but, as Sofiso boasts, is a lifestyle of choice, and that is what frightens many people."Carjacking is a profession for many of these people,'' said Brigadier Jac de Vries, the deputy police commissioner for Johannesburg and the officer in charge of Operation Safety, which covers five of the worst affected neighbourhoods with helicopter overflights and increased police patrols.

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