'We're killing each other at a baffling rate'

By Terry Leonard

Watch your back in South Africa. They kill folks there. Murder them at a bewildering rate.

Robbers kill their victims, bystanders kill criminals, family members kill each other.

Gun battles erupt on streets or in shopping malls. Passers-by whip out pistols and join in fire fights between criminals and police or security guards. A recent flurry in the numbers of high profile deadly attacks has even police suggesting they are losing the fight with violent crime.

Plans for South Africa to host the next Soccer World Cup, in 2010, has focused international attention on the crime rate, with organisers having to answer questions not just about whether they'll have enough stadiums and hotel rooms, but whether the 350 000 foreign visitors expected for the month-long tournament will be safe.

Statistically a South African is 12 times as likely to be murdered than the average American and his chances of being killed are 50 times greater than if he lived in Western Europe. In countries not at war, only a Colombian has a greater chance of dying in a hail of gunfire.

"This in an extraordinarily violent society and nobody understands it," said Peter Gastrow, a crime analyst with the Institute for Security Studies in Cape Town.

"The reasons seem to be unbelievably complex. There is no explanation that makes sense. The million dollar question is, 'Why?' If we could understand that we could start to fix it. But we can't. All we can do now is ask religious people to pray for us," said Gastrow.

The government contends it has made progress on crime, reducing some categories and levelling off others. Still, after highly publicised bloodletting of recent weeks, the government has promised a much tougher stance, saying police will be much more aggressive.

Indeed, Gastrow said the most recent available figures from 2005 indicate some improvement. But he said studies show the levels of anxiety about crime now are higher than they were in the 1990s when violent crime was at its peak. People don't trust the government figures. There is also an accumulation of fear from years of horrendous crime, said Gastrow.

South Africans, especially white South Africans, are among the best armed private citizens on Earth.

There are approximately 4,5 million registered firearms in South Africa, including more than 2,8 million handguns. The government estimates there are between 500 000 and a million unregistered firearms. Tens of thousands of the weapons are reported stolen each year.

Gun Free South Africa, a private gun-control advocacy group, says more people are shot and killed in South Africa than die in car accidents.

In Johannesburg in June, cops and robbers shot it out for hours in what has become known as the Jeppestown massacre. The gunmen executed four captured policemen, riddling their bodies with bullets. Two of the officers, knowing the end was near, died together, embracing each other as they were repeatedly shot. Eleven suspects were killed.

Armed robbers also recently held up a children's soccer match at a private elementary school, holding the pre-teen players at gunpoint while accomplices stole cellphones, money and jewelry from parents and players.

Shaun Dennison, the owner of a small hotel and a police reservist, said robbers often just shoot someone during a a robbery so that the first phone calls after they leave are for medical help rather than police.

Several years ago, a robber held a gun to Dennison's head during a robbery at a used furniture store and pulled the trigger twice. Both times, he said, the gun misfired. So the robber pistol whipped him and than ran off with his five accomplices. Dennison pursued.

"We were just standing in the middle of the street shooting at each other. We keep shooting at each other until I killed one of them and the others tried to run away," he said.

He killed three of the robbers and the other three escaped. One bystander was wounded.

Safety and Security Minister Charles Nqakula didn't help the government's public relations effort when he recently suggested that people who whine about crime should just leave the country.

That was shortly before the Jeppestown massacre. After that, a shaken Nqakula then urged police to "use (your) firearms to defend yourself and the lives of all peace-loving South Africans".

Rank and file police officers, concerned that 54 police officers have been killed already this year in South Africa recently demonstrated demanding better protection, more powerful weapons, and increased training to cope with organised, professional and better armed criminals.

"They are killing us. We need protection from the state," Tinus Ntimane, the police union's regional secretary told The Star newspaper in Johannesburg. - Sapa-AP

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