Alarm as ransom kidnappings surge in South Africa
From an eight-year-old snatched on her way to school to a wealthy businessman who was abducted and murdered, South Africa is experiencing a surge in kidnappings for money.
During the festive season, police have been warning parents to be vigilant around beaches and shopping malls since they are potential hotspots for child abduction.
"They should take extra care of their children," said Robert Netshiunda, police spokesman in the southeastern province of KwaZulu-Natal.
"Children go missing and the crime of kidnapping is a reality," he told AFP.
South Africa has long had a reputation for violent crime and is often described as one of the most dangerous countries in the world outside a war zone.
But kidnapping for ransom or extortion "is comparatively new", noted Jean-Pierre Smith, a Cape Town municipal security councillor.
The phenomenon started to rise in 2016 and is now experiencing explosive growth, according to the Global Initiative Against Transnational Organised Crime (GI-TOC), a non-profit.
Police recorded more than 4,000 cases between July and September, a two-fold increase in the same period last year.
The number of kidnappings today is "the highest ever in the history of South Africa," anti-crime activist Yusuf Abramjee told AFP.
"It has become an established and lucrative criminal practice," GI-TOC said in a report in September.
Last month, the country was stunned when eight-year-old Abirah Dekhta was kidnapped on her way to school near Cape Town by five gunmen in two cars.
Missing-person posters showed a thin girl wearing a pink dress and a matching headscarf.
She was freed during a spectacular police raid following a tip-off.
Dekhta had been held in a shack in the impoverished township of Khayelitsha, one of the largest in the country, guarded by seven men, police said. Her captors recently appeared in court, seeking bail.
Most cases of kidnapping in South Africa are a side-effect of carjacking, robberies and rapes.
But crime experts say an increasing number of victims are now being targeted directly.
In one of the most high-profile cases, four sons of a South African businessman, aged between six and 15 years, were kidnapped Hollywood manner while on their way to school.
In such cases, ransom demands can run into the millions of rand (tens of thousands of dollars).
Kidnappers sometimes brazenly demand that the ransom be paid into "foreign bank accounts via Bitcoin or via money exchanges in Dubai," said Abramjee.
Also read: In South Africa, a dark and black Christmas
But in other cases, the victim is simply killed after his bank account has been emptied.
One such fatality was Kevin Soal, a businessman in his late 60s with a passion for horse racing.
His luxury car was found abandoned in a township on the outskirts of Pretoria days later.
Soal's body was discovered afterward in a nearby area with gun wounds. Police investigators reportedly say the perpetrators were consistent with an execution-style killing.
Large amounts of money had been withdrawn from his account, said a police source.
Police and private detectives are investigating the case.
On November 23, at a press conference where he unveiled the country's dismal crime figures for 2022, Police Minister Bheki Cele singled out kidnapping for special action.
Sporting a fedora hat almost echoing the fashion style of 1920s US crimebuster Eliot Ness, Cele ordered his force to "deal decisively with these most feared crimes".
Analysts say kidnappings have been fuelled by the involvement of foreign crime groups suspected to be operating from Mozambique and Pakistan, among others countries.
Indian business people, Pakistani, Somalians and Ethiopians are among those increasingly being targeted, according to Abramjee.
A Somalian businessman was recently snatched from a Johannesburg hotel lobby, he said.
Muslim families of Indian origin, who are rumoured to hold large funds abroad, are especially at risk, said a police source.
Police last year set up a special unit and officials recently said they were "closing in on several syndicates" responsible for kidnapping for ransom cases.