S.Africa struggles to contain organised crime blamed on foreigners

Cyril Ramaphosa

Thousands march against the recent wave of xenophobic attacks in South Africa through the streets of Johannesburg.

Photo credit: AFP

Within days of each other, South Africa’s police minister and the premier of its heartland province of Gauteng have blamed sky-rocketing violence on organised criminal gangs, comprising foreigners who had been police officers or soldiers in their countries of origin.

Police minister Bheki Cele made remarks along these lines last week in commenting on the problem of gangs, whose members operate sometimes with several vehicles and with high-calibre guns, attacking cash-in-transit vans, bank cash machines or high-end shops in malls.

David Makhura, premier of Gauteng, which includes greater Pretoria and Johannesburg and comprises the economic hub of the country, said on Tuesday that a recent attack on a tavern by gunmen with AK-47s was part of the same phenomenon.

In February, amid growing anti-foreigner sentiment and another round of xenophobic attacks, Makhura sharply criticised people stoking anti-foreigner feelings.

But three weeks ago, the spiralling crime wave in South Africa (SA), and Gauteng in particular, that followed the quieter 2020-2021 period when lockdowns kept many indoors, had grown so alarming that Makhura said his province had become “ungovernable”.

Makhura cited the July attack on a crowd at Mdalose’s Tavern in Nomzamo, Soweto, in which 16 people, mostly youngsters, had died in a hail of AK-47 bullets fired by masked gunmen.

He claimed that at least one of the perpetrators of that attack had “run home” to an unnamed Southern African Development Community (SADC) country.

He said this was part of a trend wherein “foreigners with experience in the police or army” of their country of origin were involved in organised violent crimes.

The phenomenon of weapons- and explosives-trained foreigners being involved in sophisticated and very violent attacks is not new, with one pre-Covid incident filmed and widely circulated on social media at the time.

Numerous armed people are seen in that video brazenly shooting AK-47s down the streets of a suburban neighbourhood near Johannesburg in broad daylight.

They held off traffic from each direction by spraying bullets at anyone or any vehicle approaching. Other gang members placed charges of commercial explosives, likely obtained from the area’s mines, under the cash-carrying armoured vehicle that they had forced off the road.

Armed guards

Without even directly engaging the armed guards inside the vehicle, the gang simply blew it up to bits, taking the cash from the wreckage and fleeing in several high-end cars, all recently stolen.

That attack has been re-enacted in various forms many times since.

From 2010 to 2019, some 2,521 attacks on cash-in-transit (CIT) vehicles were recorded.

Of $11 billion in cash moved by CIT companies across SA in 2017, $31 million was stolen, mostly in similar heists, with the rate of attacks growing since.

But such crimes committed by organised gangs are only one of the elements driving Makhura’s comments.

Even crimes like the deeply embarrassing theft in February 2020 on President Cyril Ramaphosa’s Phala Phala game farm – where “several million” dollars were allegedly stolen by foreigners from Namibia – were once very rare here.

Even the police admit that most of the “dozens” of kidnappings taking place each month, mostly targeting foreigners who are perceived to have less support from authorities, are never officially reported.

Gang members scout out their victims, usually grabbing a child and then demanding a sum that the gang thinks is manageable by the victim’s family.

If police are involved, families are warned, the kidnapped victim dies – and some have.

Complicating matters is that current and former South African police officers have been linked to organised crime, to the degree that the police minister has repeatedly said that “bad apples” would be ruthlessly rooted out.

Some of the organised gangs, known as “blue light” crews, use unmarked vehicles with in-car flashing lights, exactly as those used by police, with gangsters dressed as police.

Cars are pulled over and the occupants robbed, often with large sums involved, indicating these organised groups have extensive information networks.

In other instances, houses are invaded by criminals posing as police officers and gaining access under false pretences.

Taken together, the numerous crimes and increasing violence involved have grown steadily – but for a brief dip during the Covid lockdown period – in the last decade and a half and have spiked sharply in the last year.

The matter is so pressing that it was the first question posed in a hybrid meeting of SA’s Parliament on Tuesday to President Ramaphosa, answering by video link as he is staying near his wife, who has undergone a “procedure”, presumed to be medical.

Ramaphosa acknowledged that the issue of “migration”, a euphemism for the ‘problem of foreigners’, was high on the agenda in his ongoing discussions with neighbouring countries.

Although heavily heckled by Julius Malema’s Economic Freedom Fighters, some of whom were ejected as a result, Ramaphosa indicated to MPs – and South Africans viewing the chaos in Parliament on TV – that his administration grasps the “problem of migration”.

Ramaphosa admitted that there were no easy answers or quick fixes, with SA struggling to seal its porous borders, the necessary first step in dealing with foreign criminal elements who now seem able to strike and run to their homelands at will.

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