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A crime-filled South African summer holiday

As South Africans enjoy their December-January summer holiday, criminals also cash in, robbing and killing while the ineffectual and sometimes corrupt police force look on.

Published: January 5, 2017, 10:40 am

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    South Africa during December reminds one of August in Europe; long, lazy days with most cities quiet as people have decamped to the coasts for their long summer break. However, like everything else in South Africa, December has its dark side: crime sprees. So when three people were shot and killed in an apparent botched house robbery on Tuesday in Vereeniging outside Johannesburg, nobody took much notice. Perhaps because they were inspecting what was left in their own homes.

    December traditionally means mayhem across South Africa. A 2014 report by a left-wing, Soros-funded NGO called Africa Check, showed monthly national crime data across the country between April 2006 and March 2011, finding that murder and serious assaults increased by up to 50% in that month. If an NGO intent on proving that “South Africa has no crime problem” admits that, the reality is probably far worse.

    A Netcare 911 spokesman‚ said in a statement that when paramedics arrived at the house they found that all three of those who had been shot had died. “Reports from the scene indicate that a suspect has been taken into police custody,” the statement went ont.

    Holidaymakers from Vanderbijlpark, south of Johannesburg were luckier. Ruaan and Rainer Liebenberg, Ruan Myburgh and Jason Glaser-Jansen, were all held captive in a Westville home, but escaped death.

    Liebenberg said he and three friends from Vanderbijlpark were held hostage and then locked in a toilet in a Westville home by three armed black men at about lunchtime on Thursday last week.

    While a lot has been researched and published about farm murders against white Afrikaner farmers, house attacks in cities receive comparatively little attention.

    The four friends were holidaying at a relative’s house in the upmarket Durban suburb of Westville when the hooded black thugs invaded the home, forced them to lie face-down on the floor and shouted at them to open the safe.

    According to Liebenberg: “I was outside when I saw some people wearing balaclavas running up the driveway. I immediately ran into the house to lock the back door, but one guy was already inside with a gun. He told me to lie down on the ground.”

    One of the intruders continually hit Ruaan Liebenberg on the head and face with his gun, a local Westville newspaper reported.

    “[He] sat on my back and kept hitting me with the butt of his gun. I was bleeding a lot.

    “They kept threatening us and asking us where the safe was. We are here on holiday and didn’t even know if there was a safe in the house,” said Liebenberg.

    His brother Rainier and Jason Glaser-Jansen tried to escape, but were caught by two of the assailants who forced them into the house. Ruan Myburgh was already in the house and was also rounded up and forced to lie down.

    One of the intruders held them at gunpoint, while the other two ransacked the house, grabbing electronic goods.

    “The one holding a gun over me pushed us all into the toilet,” said Liebenberg.

    Ruan Myburgh had kept his cellphone hidden and had a chance to use it into the toilet. “The best feeling was when they locked us in that toilet. I didn’t want to make a noise, so I sent a message to my uncle but then it [the message] didn’t go through.

    “We waited a bit and I phoned my uncle and spoke in a whisper. The police arrived very quickly, but the intruders had gone. The whole thing probably lasted 15 or 20 minutes, but it felt like two hours,” said Myburgh.

    Liebenberg, who was bleeding profusely, was taken to Westville Hospital by a neighbour, Bruce Sutcliffe, who is also an active member of the Grayleigh Neighbourhood Watch.

    “The immediate neighbour to the property heard shouting and raised the alarm,” Sutcliffe told the local Westville newspaper. “We rushed there and blocked the driveway, but the suspects had already left. Their vehicle has been caught on camera.”

    Myburgh said they did not sleep on Thursday night after the incident, but were trying to remain upbeat about the attack.

    “There has been a general increase in crime across the country in the last six months,” Westville Community Police Forum (CPF) chairman Mike Myers said, but he tried to downplay the incident as most wealthy homeowners do in order not to affect the value of their properties.

    Christmas Day saw a family in Westville being held at gunpoint when a gang of armed men stormed into their home late at night, stealing televisions and cellphones.

    On Friday SAPS KZN spokeswoman, Colonel Thembeka Mbhele, confirmed a case of house robbery had been opened at Westville Police Station. “Police have increased patrols in the area,” he said.

    In George, in the southern Cape, also on the Indian Ocean side, a German tourist is in a serious condition in hospital after he was robbed and assaulted in the seaside town of Wilderness on Sunday.

    National Sea Rescue Institute (NSRI) Wilderness station commander Robert van Helsdingen said the man and his wife, who are from Heidelberg in Germany, were in South Africa to attend a wedding in Hermanus.

    They had arrived in Wilderness on Sunday, the day the attack happened. “The 54-year-old German man, suffering multiple injuries, was treated on the scene and the SA Police Services, EER International Paramedics and Eden 911 ambulance services attended at the scene to assist NSRI and the man has been transported to hospital in a serious but stable condition by ambulance,” Van Helsdingen said after NSRI medics had assisted the couple.

    The man’s companion was not injured. Police have arrested the black suspects in the case and the stolen items have been recovered.

    The police do not release monthly crime statistics, but according to the South African 2015/16 crime statistics, business burglaries during this time of the year also increase exponentially, especially in empty offices and buildings.

    “Burglary is a serious threat to any business and can significantly affect operations,” said Wickus van der Walt, head of Broker Distribution at FNB Insurance Brokers, who added that a number of burglaries and related theft occurred primarily at businesses when closed for business. The losses are quite large and happen over a relatively short period.

    “In these tough times when businesses are struggling to survive, the last thing business owners want is to be caught off guard by a robbery. Without taking the necessary precautions and putting tighter security measures in place as well as ensuring adequate insurance cover against potential risks, a business can be left defenceless during this festive season,” Van der Walt said.

    New black Gauteng Premier David Makhura, a member of the opposition DA party, has said that his government was determined to reduce the overall level of crime in the province over the festive season and beyond, adding that roadblocks and random searches will be conducted.

    FreeWestMedia contacted three random Gauteng residents in Pretoria, Johannesburg and Randburg, but no one had seen a roadblock or random searches anywhere. In fact all three said the roads were relatively police-free.

    Makhura delivered his political report at the Gauteng Legislature before Christmas, but most of it was staple political fodder, without substance.

    The comprehensive Gauteng City Region Policing Plan that has been adopted for “high visibility” of police officers across the province, was mostly absent as well as law enforcement officers he promised would be “out in full force”.

    “The deployment of police officers all over our province and their high visibility has been agreed upon as part of turning the tide against crime. Cooperation of law enforcement officers especially the Metro Police and South African Police Service has been strengthened.”

    Mall robberies, cash-in-transit heists and other attacks tend to increase towards the end of the year over the Christmas holidays and when bonuses are traditionally paid.

    Theunis Kotze, the security company ADT’s general manager, Inland Region, told FWM that crime was becoming more sophisticated, with inside information playing an increasingly prominent role.

    Meanwhile Port Elizabeth has emerged as one of South Africa’s major centres of gangsterism — and there are fears that gang-related crime will reach new heights during the current holiday period.

    Police statistics show that over the four years up to March 2016, 566 murders took place in the “coloured” suburbs in the north of Port Elizabeth — many of them seen as gang-driven.

    As Christmas approached, there were strong signs of rising gang activity. At least 11 murders took place in the northern areas in November, as well as nine attempted murders and 37 drug-related arrests.

    Media reports indicate an average of about three murders a month between March and September this year, a researcher from the left-wing amaBhungane Centre for Investigative Journalism, found.

    A Herald report noted a significant increase in recent weeks in firearm holders being attacked for their guns, burglars breaking in through roofs, and remote jammers being used to steal valuables from vehicles.

    In this year’s police crime statistics, two coloured policing precincts took pole position throughout the Eastern Cape in all gang-related crimes, including murder, attempted murder, illegal possession of a firearm, drug-related crime, and malicious damage to property.

    The Centre for Justice and Crime Prevention project manager Regan Jules-Macquet told the South African weekly, The Mail&Guardian that several factors contributed to the crime surge over the festive season, citing a lack of access to “prosocial constructive activities”, increased spare time and the normalisation of excessive alcohol consumption.

    These perceived societal ills are often blamed for crime in the counrty and has been a boon for recipients of large foreign donations, but in the two decades following the end of apartheid, these “reasons” have never been successfully addressed despite tons of money showered on the scourge.

    A high-ranking Port Elizabeth police officer, who asked to remain anonymous, said he expects an upsurge in gang crime this season as a result of the closure of the police’s Operation Lockdown.

    “There has been disruption in gang activity because of the operation. The problem is, while gang-related crime did not stop during the six months, gangs lost revenue during the operation which they will try to make up for now,” he said.

    A novel form of crime in PE, seen as gang-related, surfaced in November. Rocks were hurled at vehicles from the Stanford Road bridge over the N2, forcing motorists to pull over. Naidu said a gang of about five black men hiding nearby then confronted and robbed the driver.

    But the method is not new to Gauteng where overpasses have already been closed off in problem areas.

    The main contributing factor in the current upsurge of gang-related crime in the “Friendly City” seems indeed to be the disbanding of Operation Lockdown, launched on March 24 this year by the Eastern Cape government in a bid to crack down on crime.

    The operation, which shut up shop in September, was intended to last six months. Police spokeswoman Colonel Priscilla Naidu told amaBhungane it had been “a unique policing intervention” aimed at combating gang crime, resulting in the arrest of 600 offenders, a fivefold increase over 2015, and the seizure of 85 firearms and 1 000 rounds of ammunition.

    Because the conviction record — 15 in total, according to Naidu — was less impressive, the longer-term impact was called into question. The low conviction rate was ascribed to the reluctance of residents to support the police, even though they initially called for police intervention. But the real reason may be more sinister as police corruption and collusion in crime remain high.

    According to the SA Institute of Race Relations’ new report, The wolf guards the sheep, from 2015, the situation of police criminality is so severe that women driving alone at night have reason to fear seeing blue lights in their rear-view mirrors.

    The report, which sampled 100 cases, showed 32 percent of the cases reviewed related to murder, 26 percent to rape, 22 percent to armed robberies, and 20 percent to other crimes including torture, theft and burglaries.

    The police rejected the report as “lies” and said the SAPS was never consulted, but Frans Cronje, the institute’s chief executive, said: “These are not ‘isolated incidents’, but a ‘pattern of behaviour’.”

    The report drew on data from the Independent Police Investigative Directorate, parliament’s portfolio committee on police and the parliamentary monitoring group.

    The police in the Eastern Cape were reluctant to reveal statistics for the number of murders and attempted murders during the six months of Lockdown, saying it was not SAPS policy to reveal statistics “outside the annual national crime stats”.

    A Helenvale resident and member of the Helenvale Peacemakers, a community policing forum, who asked to remain anonymous for her own safety, remained sceptical about the number of arrests during Operation Lockdown.

    “It is all just a show by the police. They arrest hundreds of people but then only three or four are ever convicted. They say they’ve done all these wonderful things, yet gang violence is worse than ever.

    “I work with the gangs in these streets on a daily basis and I can tell you this December will see the worst gang violence ever… We as northern areas residents are very concerned,” she said.

    Independent researcher and criminal expert Stef Snel echoed this, describing Operation Lockdown as a “political exercise”.

    “Given the fact that the operation only ran for six months, it’s more for window-dressing, a political move to please the people of the affected area. One simply can’t make much of a difference in that time,” Snel told amaBunghane.

    Independent educational researcher Susan Janse van Rensburg confirmed that during the holiday with young people being on the streets they were exposed to recruitment.

    “The school holidays continue to be the perfect opportunity for gangs to rake in the youth,” Janse van Rensburg said. “Violent crime rises in the affected areas as these new recruits try to establish a name and reputation for themselves within their new gang family.

    “It also significantly contributes to the huge number of drop-outs the following January, as kids realise crime pays quicker than education. They get hooked on drugs in the holiday and instead of progressing to the next grade they progress in the seriousness of their crimes.”

    In August, David Livingstone High School in Schauderville became the latest of several schools that were temporarily closed this year following gang intimidation of pupils and teachers.

    Increasingly modelling itself on Western Cape gangs in terms of organisational hierarchy, operating style and affiliation to prison Number gangs, the Eastern Cape has seen a sharp increase over the past four years in gang-related activity, particularly in the northern areas.

    Another headache facing the authorities is the availability of prison cells. If arrests and convictions increase in Port Elizabeth, it is unclear where the felons will be housed.

    The Judicial Inspectorate for Correctional Services report released in October found that St Albans Medium Prison in Port Elizabeth was 194 percent over-capacity and short of 709 beds.

    The maximum security St Alban’s Correctional Centre in Port Elizabeth remains in lockdown incidentally, after a riot left three inmates dead.

    But the criminal holiday spirit not only affects South Africa but neighbouring Mazambique as well. Off-road vehicle owners in the Mhlabuyalingana municipal area near Mozambique’s border are living in fear as they are being targeted by cross-border hijacking syndicates.

    A sudden spike in hijacking by brazen AK-47-wielding gangsters, who have been robbing owners of 4X4s and sports utility vehicles at their homes, has elicited an outcry from angered locals.

    Fed up Jozini residents staged a public protest before Christmas, calling for a round-the-clock police presence or they would take the law into their own hands.

    The group handed a memorandum, which highlighted their concerns, to Police Minister Nathi Nhleko. Nhleko’s spokesman, Sandile Ngidi. said the minister was deeply concerned about the continued incidents of cross-border crimes and was aware of the rising emotional temperature within the communities neighbouring Mozambique.

    “Communities are getting impatient and in some cases vigilante groups have been formed.

    “Surely taking the law into one’s hand is not an answer,” Nigidi said.

    Black businessman, Russel Tembe, a member of the Royal Tembe family told the Sunday Tribune that the rate of hijackings in recent months have left residents feeling hopeless.

    “The situation has been terrible. It has been a long-time problem that has become worse in recent months.

    “Locals are struggling to buy 4X4s; it is a necessity here, [because of bad roads] but we are becoming targets. Our areas are largely sandy and some parts are only accessible by 4X4. We dont buy these vehicles for luxury,” Tembe said.

    He said previously the SAPS members policed the Salamango border checkpoint in Mozambique and “we could sleep at night, but no longer.”

    Sibusiso Bukhosini, Mhlabuyalingana’s municipal manager, said the higher level of policing has helped reduce hijacking: “These are not opportunistic criminals, but robbers linked to syndicates in Mozambique. I’m told there is always a waiting customer in Mozambique, that is worrisome.”

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