File picture: Armand Hough /African News Agency (ANA)
Johannesburg - Fatima Mohamed (not her real name) says she will never forget the harrowing moment when she discovered that two of her relatives had been kidnapped.

The Joburg mother had been putting her children to bed when she received a call from an unknown number. 

“The voice was distorted so it was really hard to make out who the person was,” said Mohamed.

“The person on the other end wasted little time in telling me that they had kidnapped two of my family members. They demanded a ransom of more than R50million. At the time, it was difficult to process what exactly was going on.”

Mohamed said the kidnappers, who used a voice-changing device, didn’t say much apart from demanding the ransom.

Her two relatives - an elderly 71-year-old and his son - are prominent businessmen in Joburg. They were kidnapped while commuting home on an August evening. Both were held for nearly a month before the kidnappers released them.

“Immediately that night we had to make arrangements to move the two men’s families away from their residences. That in itself was traumatic. Their families had to be put into safe-keeping,” said Mohamed.

Their case is not unique. In the past year, several other high-profile businesspeople have been kidnapped.

In May, Durban businesswoman Sandra Moonsamy was kidnapped in Pinetown while on her way home. She was found alive in Witbank six months later.

Mohamed said during her family’s ordeal, the kidnappers made several calls to her and her family with various instructions. “The kidnappers were demanding high ransom sums, in the millions. It started over the R50m mark initially. From there they went down to R20m then R10m over time.

“They made it abundantly clear to us that they were not killers and that this is a business for them and they were only in it for the money. They called us around 10 times during the ordeal and often used WhatsApp.”

Her family feared each day that the two men would be killed and worked closely together with the police and other private investigators.

“We also made several enquiries with other families who went through similar ordeals to see if we could get any leads ... We also learnt that kidnappings were planned well and in advance.

“The kidnappers actually profile you. They know everything about you. They have a safe house to keep you. They have it ready for when you come. They know your dietary requirements and whether you’re on medication. They also do their homework on what the person’s financial standing is. That’s how they start negotiating the ransom price.”

Dealing with the kidnappers was difficult. “It was very traumatic for us in the sense that we didn’t know whether our phones were being tapped, whether we were being followed. We didn’t know how much the kidnappers knew of us as a family. We had to get extra security to guard our house.”

She and her relatives removed their children from school for the duration of the ordeal. The family has chosen not to disclose the ransom that was paid.

In our case they wanted the money to be dropped off. They didn’t ask for it to be transferred to an account in Dubai or a Swiss account, like with other kidnapping cases. They sent us a location and specifically instructed that only one family member must drop the money off.”

While police are still investigating the case, Mohamed believes the kidnappers will eventually be caught. “What concerns me though is if they do get caught, I believe they know where we live. Even if they get caught, they will get someone else to come for us. That makes us think, do we really want them to pay the price or should we just let it go?”

Official police statistics show kidnapping has increased by 139% in the past decade and there appears to be a trend towards opportunistic abductions for quick ransom payments via eWallets, often preying on teenagers and children.

Based on the latest police statistics, about 16 people are kidnapped or abducted in South Africa daily.

Gauteng is also listed as the province with the highest number of kidnappings in SA while Kempton Park is the kidnapping capital of the country.

In September, 6-year-old Amy’Leigh de Jager was kidnapped in front of Laerskool Kollegepark in Vanderbijlpark. Her abductors, including her Grade R teacher, are facing trial.

Pretoria-based private investigator Mike Bolhuis lands up with at least two kidnapping cases a week.

“It’s definitely escalated, especially these kind of quick in-and-out kidnappings. Sometimes it’s even family members that are involved. Sometimes it doesn’t even involve money. It’s just because a family member hasn’t returned a child. That kind of kidnapping has escalated.

“Young people are being taken and held. They are snatched from nightclubs, restaurants and even schools. Some of them have been found out to have even orchestrated the kidnappings themselves to extort money from their parents.”

Bolhuis blamed the government, the police - and cellphone companies. “For the government, kidnapping is not a priority crime. The police don’t have the infrastructure to deal with this. The cellphone companies know and should make it compulsory that every phone sold has a direct location identifier. They can do it, they just don’t.”

Safety and security specialist Werner Koekemoer said kidnapping is on the rise because criminals are looking for faster ways to commit crime. “Kidnapping is an easy way to make a lot of money fast. It does not require much knowledge or intelligence.

“Although SA’s criminal justice system’s purpose is to prevent and deter crime... the success rate is very low. Therefore criminals feel they can commit more crime without being worried about definite prosecution.”

Private investigator Colonel Luke Enslin believes technology has also played a role as “nearly every person has a smartphone”. “It’s easy to keep a person hostage and contact the contacts on his or her phone, especially family and demand a ransom for their release. The easy and quick way in which money can be transferred also assists these crimes.”

Saturday Star