Thursday, December 21, 2006

South Africans long for justice as crime rages

Michael Georgy:

When an off-duty policeman pulled out a gun and opened fire on a gang robbing a Johannesburg pub, some patrons cheered the act as instant justice.

The robbers had forced customers to hand over their wallets and cellphones, until the policeman's girlfriend, also an off-duty officer, handed him her gun and he fired.

Newspapers quoted one patron as saying some laughed as three of the men died slowly at the dimly-lit pub that displays a sign "right of admission reserved" on a metal door with a buzzer.

The shooting may have given some people satisfaction but a senior police official warned crime-weary South Africans against taking the law into their own hands.

"People have a right to defend themselves but we don't want people to act like vigilantes and just shoot criminals," said Gauteng police director Govindsamy Mariemuthoo.

"They can call the police."

That may be wishful thinking in a country where underpaid and outgunned policemen are charged with fighting rampant crime.

Murders, rapes, carjackings and robberies are so common that a continental review board has warned they are a threat to South Africa's post-apartheid democracy.

South Africans were reminded of just how vulnerable they are this week when theatre icon Taliep Pietersen was shot in the neck and killed during a robbery at his Cape Town home, the latest high-profile victim of a crime wave that cuts down both rich and poor alike.

In October, Nobel prize-winning author Nadine Gordimer was robbed and assaulted in her home in a quiet Johannesburg suburb.

Fences packed with 80,000 volts of electricity and sophisticated motion alarms in Johannesburg's leafy suburbs create the impression of safety.

But some of the deadliest crimes are committed at people's electronic garage doors, where assailants await their victims.

"Security is a Catch 22 situation. Customers want electric garage door openers that work faster and from far away but that means burglars can quicky sneak in to their homes and wait for them," said Neil Wilson, who manages Home Security Centre.

Here are some frightening statistics:

In the 2005-2006 period there were 18,528 murders, 54,926 rapes, and 226,942 assaults with grievous bodily arm intended, according to the Department of Safety and Security.

But with the country scheduled to host the 2010 World Cup, security services have been forced to address the problem.

Last month the new U.S. ambassador to South Africa, Eric Bost, said few would want to come to the country for the finals if crime continued at current levels.

South African police plan to have 192,000 officers in the nation's streets by 2009 and 30,000 of those would be assigned exclusively to protect athletes, soccer fans and other tourists during the World Cup.

But South Africa's crime now comes in unpredictable waves and tougher gun laws make it more difficult for anyone who wants to buy a weapon for self defence.

It can take a year to get a license after first obtaining a training certificate.

Gun dealers say the odds are in favour of criminals because ordinary South Africans can only buy pistols while criminals buy AK-47 assault rifles on the black market in a land awash with guns since the end of apartheid.

"A lot of gun dealers have gone out of business. There were about 300 in Johannesburg. Now there are about 30," said Gareth Denysschen, who sells pistols and trains gun applicants.

"People buy expensive guns because if they need repairs they need to apply all over again. Others are going to the black market themselves," he said.

The incident at the Buck and Hog pub, near a lovely forest and dam where people enjoy kayakes and sailing, may have raised concerns about the psyche of a country where newspapers carry headlines like "Bang, Bang, Bang."

"This is what it has come to - while two would-be robbers lay dying in the street outside a Joburg restaurant this week, their potential victims looked on and laughed," said an editorial in The Star.

Most South Africans fret over crime

Crime tops SA worry list


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