South Africa is at the coalface of a relentless battle against a myriad of quasi-criminal networks and syndicates, operating with transnational connections and engaging in a spectrum of criminal activities, from drug trafficking to armed robberies and fraud.
This is according to the 2023 Global Organised Crime Index released on Tuesday that showed that South Africa scored a 7.18 criminality score (out of 10) - the seventh highest in the world (out of 193 countries) and the third in Africa. South Africa’s score was 6.63 in 2021 - the last time the index was published.
Myanmar has the highest criminality score (8.15), followed by Colombia (7.75) and then Mexico (7.57).
In Africa, the Democratic Republic of Congo (7.35) and Nigeria (7.28) were ahead of South Africa.
According to the global report, South Africa’s crime networks, often fuelled by corrupt relationships, have entrenched the criminal economy deeply within the country, leading to a “crisis of trust in government and law enforcement”.
The report reveals that South Africa is a hotbed for various organised criminal activities, including drug trafficking, cash-in-transit operations, poaching syndicates, robberies, and more.
Mafia-style groups, well-armed and associated with high levels of violence, are increasingly prominent, particularly in major cities like Cape Town, Johannesburg, and Durban.
These groups typically emerge in geographically and topographically defined contexts before spreading more widely after achieving success, the report says.
They have engaged in violent disruptions of construction sites and extortion of protection fees from businesses, with some accused of acting as surrogates for certain politicians.
Foreign criminal actors, particularly from West Africa, South America, China, Pakistan, Israel, and southern and eastern European nations, have a strong presence in South African criminal markets, especially in major cities.
These criminals, rather than controlling specific markets, act as ‘interfaces’, exerting moderate to substantial degrees of economic and financial power.
The report shockingly reveals that South Africa has become a haven for criminal Mafias and bosses to launder money and establish companies for money laundering activities.
The long history of corruption between state actors and criminal organisations has eroded public trust in government and law enforcement, with corruption being pervasive across various state departments, including senior levels within prosecution and prison services.
Accusations of the political system being a kleptocracy have tarnished the image of the South African police, leading to a significant drop in public trust.
The country’s economic crisis has shaken the foundations of its system of governance, with scandals decreasing the credibility and reputation of President Cyril Ramaphosa.
Unsurprisingly, the report reveals that South Africa has a high level of corruption in its public sector, with maladministration, procurement corruption, and abuse of authority being the most common forms.
“The ruling party has used its majority in parliament to block crucial legislative oversight investigations, protecting its representatives from corruption inquiries,” the report noted.
On a positive note, the report found that South Africa’s judicial system is generally independent.
However it is plagued by shortages of judicial staff and lack of financial resources, undermining defendants’ due process rights. The country’s prisons are plagued by overcrowding and inhumane conditions, leading to an increase in gang violence and abuse.
In addition, South Africa’s extensive coastline, multiple ports of entry, and several land border control points make it an attractive route for illicit trafficking.
Criminal networks often use illegal crossings along the wide borders with Zimbabwe, Mozambique, and eSwatini to smuggle people or send shipments of drugs, people, and illegal poaching destined for Europe, Asia, and Australia.
The report highlights that the recent cyber-attacks on the country’s critical infrastructure demonstrate the need for better cyber threat detection and prevention.