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South Africa- Crime's capital

Sunday, September 30, 2001

CAPE TOWN, South Africa -- I'm sitting on the edge of my bed, my hands bound tightly behind my back with a shoelace. A young man sitting six feet away points a battered black revolver at my head and screams: "Don't talk to her! I'll shoot you! I'll shoot you!"

I had merely whispered to my girlfriend, who was tied up next to me, to remain calm.

He didn't shoot, and our firsthand encounter with South Africa's horrific crime wave mercifully fell into the armed robbery category, rather than murder or assault.

For 20 painfully slow minutes, the man's two accomplices, dressed in tracksuits and sneakers, nonchalantly emptied our wallets, took off our watches and loaded almost everything of value I owned into my car. They put us in an unlocked bathroom and sped off.

Ours was a good news story as far as crime goes in South Africa -- most people tell me how lucky we were to escape unhurt.

Violent society

In May, Safety and Security Minister Steve Tshwete proclaimed: "I have no doubt in my mind that the South African Police Service is on top of the crime situation."

The reality is very different. While the country managed to avoid widespread bloodshed in ridding itself of apartheid, it has failed to contain violent crime that has surged to nightmarish levels.

A government study totaled up 27,600 homicides in 1999, giving South Africa a per-capita murder rate eight times worse than that of the United States.

Almost half the people interviewed in a survey by the independent Institute for Security Studies said they feel unsafe.

Violence is the greatest threat facing South Africa's fledgling democracy, President Thabo Mbeki said recently.

"The largest single cause of death as we sit here is what in medical statistics is called 'external causes,' and that is violence in this society," he said.

"It's almost as if the streets have been taken over by gangsters," said Capt. Tony Benso, who runs a police counseling center for crime victims.

In my case, the three robbers strolled in through the front door in broad daylight, making no attempt to hide their faces or avoid leaving fingerprints.

That night, feeling shaky and disillusioned, I sat with three friends in a restaurant, discussing how crime tarnishes our beautiful city of Cape Town, a tourist paradise sandwiched between unspoiled white beaches and pristine mountains.

The only woman present had been raped. One of the men had been stabbed in the arm by a robber who took his cellular phone. The other man had been mugged by a gang who threatened him with machetes when he chased after them.

I have lost count of the times my family and I have been robbed. This was the third car I have had stolen. The robbery was my girlfriend's third in less than a year.

Crime wars

Our experience, however, pales into insignificance when compared to that of the millions of poor South Africans who confront crime every day. In poor Cape Town suburbs, tens of thousands of people live in perpetual fear as gang wars rage on their doorsteps.

The Cape Times newspaper recently ran a story about a gas station owner in the working class suburb of Langa who had been robbed 28 times and shot at 17 times over the past three years. No one was arrested.

South Africa's criminal justice system sputters along. The country's 80,000 police officers are overworked and poorly paid, and many are demoralized. About 170,000 prisoners, nearly a third of them awaiting trial, languish in jails crammed to 70 percent above capacity. Cases can take years to get through swamped courts.

Yet dedicated police officers try to make the best of the situation.

I was impressed at the handling of my case. Burly police officers in bulletproof vests arrived at my house within five minutes of the alarm, my car was recovered the same day and the case was swiftly investigated.

A man fitting the description of one of those who robbed me was shot in the leg and arrested a week later, after he broke into another house, tied up the residents and stole their car. The case has yet to come to court.

But most crimes remain unresolved, and hundreds of thousands of victims bear the physical and emotional scars for years. Trapped by economic circumstances, many live side by side with those responsible for brutalizing them and, due to scarce government resources, only a handful ever receive counseling.

"There are walking wounded out there," said Debbi Rozowsky, a counselor who does volunteer work at the center run by Benso, the police captain.

Blaming apartheid

South Africa's violent apartheid history is one of many factors blamed for crime.

The country's white rulers enacted a raft of absurd legislation, criminalizing everything from interracial sex to strikes. As opposition to apartheid intensified, political violence rose.

While official crime statistics before last year are widely acknowledged as unreliable, research by the Institute for Security Studies found that crime levels rose in the 1980s and soared in the early 1990s. There was no letup after the country's first all-race elections in 1994 swept the African National Congress to power.

"The primary thing that keeps people behaving themselves is one another," said Ted Leggett, an analyst with the Institute for Security Studies. "What apartheid did was fragment the society, and as a result social cohesion was lost."

Still, many countries have undergone radical political transitions and also suffered from skyrocketing crime, and Leggett thinks crime in South Africa will start declining as democracy becomes entrenched.

Rampant poverty and the country's 33 percent unemployment rate are also factors.

"Many of our children complete their tertiary education but cannot find jobs thereafter and thousands of them are now roaming the streets helplessly," Social Development Minister Zola Skweyiya said.

The man who threatened to shoot me intimated with an almost apologetic shrug that he would rather work for a living.

"It's the government's fault," he said.


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