SOUTH AFRICA hijacked by crime.

Author:Nevin, Tom

South Africa's murder rate is 1,000 times higher than the world average; it also has the world's worst record of rapes, and now armed gangs are emptying out banks with military precision. The government meanwhile is claiming victory over crime. Where does the truth lie?

When the South African police service's chief-executive officer Meyer Khan recently told a Johannesburg press briefing: "You ain't seen nothin' yet," he could not have realised the full import of his words. Virtually as he spoke, a 45-year-old mother was shot in the chest and neck by two robbers for the few rands in her handbag as she waited in her car for her daughter at music lessons. She died at the scene. In the nearby suburb of Bryanston, the unarmed and unresisting manager of a motor service station was shot in the head at point blank range by three gangsters who had already emptied the fills. He was killed instantly.

These murders are brutal and senseless -- the taking of human life for the sheer thrill of it.

Mr Khan's unwitting remark was not intended as a reflection on the increase in violent crime in South Africa, just the reverse. It expressed the government's view that crime is on the decrease: "We're winning the streets back from crime," he asserted. Apparently not from the gunmen who took the lives of the housewife and the garage manager, and the perpetrators of the hundreds of violent crimes that were committed throughout Johannesburg and the rest of the country on that day -- business as usual for the burgeoning criminal population that thrives on South Africa's streets.

Mr Khan is one of South Africa's most respected businessmen. He was chief-executive officer of South African Breweries before he took on the job of managing the police force. It was hoped at the time of his appointment that a hard-nosed, non-bureaucratic business approach would be able to view the crime crisis from a different angle and therefore apply different, and workable, solutions. One of the developments instituted by Mr Khan has been to privatise police office jobs. It is his contention that trained cops shouldn't be sitting at desks pushing pieces of paper around -- they should be out on the streets taking care of the bad guys.

Meyer Khan is not without chutzpa. Dodging volleys from the press corps, he insisted that violent crime -- including the world's worst incidence of rape and a murder rate that is seven times greater than that of the United States -- is finally on the wane. He says he has statistics to prove that "the crime situation has stopped deteriorating" and that, with the exception of rape, serious crime levels are beginning to drop. "Within three to five years," he declares confidently, "South Africa can become one of the safest countries in the world."

It will be a while before the average South African believes this to be a possibility. Rough justice and kangaroo courts in poorer areas are becoming commonplace and whites, predominantly rich professionals, are emigrating in a steady stream to the US, Britain and Australia. The average motorist is a basket case, dreading the tap on the car window from the barrel of a hijacker's automatic pistol. Householders go to sleep each night half-expecting to hear the jangle of the burglar alarm at any time. The clamour for the return of the death penalty increases daily.

According to opposition National Party MP Piet Mathee, South Africa's annual murder rate is 1,000% higher than the world average. More than 25,000 South Africans died in acts of criminal violence last year and around R166m was stolen in armed robberies, most of it from banks and cash-in-transit security vehicles.

How is South Africa doing so far this year? That's not easy to say because recent crimes are classified by the government as secret and statistics for crimes can only be released every three months through the office of the Minister for Safety and Security, Sydney Mufamadi. The police explain the delay as a precaution against incorrectly audited crime...

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