Johanensburg - As police minister Nathi Mthethwa prepared to release South Africa’s crime statistics on Thursday morning in Pretoria, an armed robbery was unfolding about 60km away in Joburg.
Five armed men stormed into foreign exchange business Western Union in Fordsburg, holding staff at gunpoint for 15 minutes as they waited for the timer on the safe to open up for them.
They robbed the store of an undisclosed amount of foreign currenc before exchanging heavy fire with the police, leaving bullets scattered all over. They then shot a security guard, pistol-whipped another one and fled.
People from nearby businesses dived for cover as the two groups exchanged fire.
Warrant-Officer Xoli Mbele of the Johannesburg police said the men had arrived at the scene in a white Toyota Hilux and parked it a few metres away from the business.
As the Western Union staff arrived for duty, they were pushed around by the robbers, who used a crowbar to open an inside door. They then demanded that the shaken staffers open the safe for them.
Mbele explained that the safe operates on a 15-minute timer.
During this time the terrified staff were forced to wait with guns held to their faces.
As soon as the safe opened the robbers grabbed the cash, took the computer with the hard drive containing surveillance footage of the shop and quickly left.
A witness in the area meanwhile called the police. Western Union’s security service, Anchor Security, had been alerted to the robbery and had dispatched a vehicle.
As the men were leaving the shop, both the police van and security vehicle pulled up at the scene.
“When a police officer was about to open the door of his van, the men started shooting. He quickly closed the door and returned fire,” he said.
Ashraf Hoosen of the security company said he got caught up in traffic on his way to the scene. He put on his lights and drove on the yellow line all the way to Mayfair.
Just before he arrived, he had to stop at a red traffic light. His colleague then jumped out of the car to rush to the scene.
As Hoosen sat in the car waiting for the lights to turn green, he saw the five robbers rush out of the store. He also saw them pistol-whip his colleague and shoot a security guard stationed nearby in the thigh.
“When I got out of the car they all fired at me. I was about to shoot when I saw a police officer come towards me, who shot at them.”
As the men fled, they dropped one of the bags, which turned out to contain the hard drive with the footage.
A witness at the scene said the men then jumped into a bakkie. As one drove off, the men in the back kept shooting.
Mbele said it was not known whether any of the suspects had been wounded in the shootout.
The investigation into the robbery continues.