GUNNING FOR CHANGE: Police destroyed 722 guns, which were crushed into scrap metal at a recycling plant in Prospecton during the third such destruction event, a final step in the process of Operation Sethunya.
Two police officers were shot dead while conducting a crime prevention operation in Inanda. Constable Jabulani Mavundla and his partner were attending to a complaint of a robbery when they were ambushed on their way back to the police station.

Mavundla lost control of their vehicle, crashed and died at the scene. His service pistol and a rifle were stolen.

A recent massacre in Marikana, Philippi, saw four people shot dead inside a tavern. Three more were shot and killed inside a shack nearby while one person was shot outside the structure, two between the shacks and one person later died in hospital due to injuries.

A 2-year-old girl was among the victims of recent gang wars when she was shot in the mouth and a man was killed in Elsies River. The toddler joined a number of children caught in the crossfire between rival gangs.

In February, boys aged 12 and 14 were wounded in shootings. In the same month, an 11-year-old girl was wounded when used as a human shield. In August, 7-year-old Esra Daniels was shot and killed in Grassy Park, then a month later Aqeel Davids, 9, was shot and later died in hospital.

These are just some of the stories of police, ordinary people and children who die at the barrel of a gun in South Africa, never mind the many others who suffer a similar fate.

The American constitution guarantees citizens of the US the right to bear arms. It is a right that is vigorously safeguarded because, as Americans would argue, their independence and constitutional dispensation were brought about through the barrel of a gun. While over the years the US has tried to tighten gun control, the number of massacres rocking the US continues unabated.

South Africa’s constitutional democracy, one could argue, was not brought about through the barrel of a gun but through a peaceful and negotiated process. We did not have a civil war in the classic sense, as the Americans did, but there is evidence that a war was waged. Liberation armies fought the South African Defence Force, guerrillas were deployed to attack strategic installations and others were sent to sabotage key bases.

Many would argue that the sabotaging continues today. Civil servants deliberately do not perform their duties, as they would have done in the old Bantustans, because this was their form of resistance. Teachers continue to refuse to teach because they once refused to participate in Bantu education. The historical institutional culture continues to persist in our corridors of the state.

Guns were once smuggled by the liberation movements to ensure that the war against apartheid was fought and soldiers were equipped.

Weapons such as AK-47s and the like were often supplied by foreign governments to the liberation armies and remain out there with no process of demilitarisation having taken place. This is one of the disadvantages of declaring that South Africa did not have a civil war: civilians remained armed.

Classically, a process of demilitarisation would occur in countries where civil war took place. Both sides would dis-arm, as happened in Northern Ireland and even in some countries in Africa. South Africa, because its conflict was never recognised as a conventional civil war, never had a formal process of disarmament and, as a result, we continue to have a gun problem.

NGO Safer Spaces, on its website, indicates that the National Murder Survey 2015/16 showed that 16 people were shot and murdered every day in South Africa. In other words, just under 6000 annually.

While the figure is still high, it is a reduction from about 34 a day in 1998. In the same period of 2015/16, murders by guns accounted for nearly a third of all murders. The same NGO states that guns still play a significant role in femicide.

In 2015, using data from 2012, the World Health Organisation declared South Africa the second worst country in the world for gun-related deaths.

South Africa followed the US. To complicate matters, statistics related to guns are particularly difficult to determine given the widespread occurrence of crime using stolen guns. As a result, the non-existent demilitarisation process in South Africa is compounded with the widespread occurrence of gun robbery or theft.

International NGO GunPolicy suggests that there are about 3.5 million guns owned by South Africans, legally and illegally. In world ranking, a decade ago, this meant that South Africa was ranked 17th for private gun possession.

A decade ago, the defence force in South Africa was said to have just over 350 000 guns in its possession. In other words, six times more firearms are in the possession of civilians than the state.

The Truth and Reconciliation Commission reported how criminal gangs were often used by the police either to destabilise political activities or even to directly destabilise communities. The police would often use gangs and leading gangsters to disrupt the operations of those fighting for freedom and target Struggle activists.

Needless to say, the supply of guns often came with this support.

The debate about guns in South Africa is complex. Yet while it may be complex, it is a debate that is not happening.

Unlike in the US, where gun laws and gun control emerges as an election theme or is discussed in the wake of a gun massacre, South Africans seem to be oblivious to talking about this instrument that is used to perpetrate dangerous crime.

Very little, if anything, is said about guns in the ANC’s “Peace and Stability” document and proposed resolutions as it prepares for its 54th national conference.

One would have thought that ANC provinces most hit by the scourge of gun abuse would propose measures to tackle gun control. Provinces such as the Western Cape, Gauteng and Eastern Cape, in particular, should have been at the forefront of proposing stricter gun laws.

Unlike the US constitution, our constitution does not guarantee our citizens the right to bear arms. It could well be a good proposal for political parties to consider a total ban on civilian ownership of firearms.

Making it illegal for a civilian to have a gun does make it easier to control and manage. Sadly, our political parties and our public representatives in particular are very far from bringing up these real issues to tackle issues that would save lives.

South African civil society, especially our churches, mosques and temples, must become advocates calling for the banning of all civilian guns and demanding an end to the senseless killing of our people through bullets.

It is time that civil society becomes as active as it is in other democracies, calling for and ensuring the complete elimination of these machines which kill and maim.

What we need as a country is a total rejection of the right to bear arms and an embracing of ensuring that all South Africans, not just farmers, are safe.

* Vuyo Mhanga is the provincial deputy chairperson of the ANC Youth League in Gauteng and Buyile Matiwane is the Western Cape chairperson of the South African Students' Congress.

** The views expressed here are not necessarily those of Independent Newspapers.

Cape Argus