Spate of kidnappings should give police ’sleepless nights’

By Robin Adams, Mervyn Naidoo, Nathan Craig Time of article published Oct 24, 2021

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A SURGE in kidnapping across the country should give police “sleepless nights”, security experts warn as the number of people taken rose to 15 in the space of 48 hours.

The kidnapping and rescue mission on Friday of 11 Ethiopians and the kidnapping of five children this week has brought the issue into sharp focus.

The police operations involving the Ethiopians unfolded in Johannesburg. But the Western Cape forms a big part of the puzzle, which police said they were still trying to figure out.

Five of the 11 kidnapped victims rescued from a Soweto storage facility are from Cape Town, Worcester and Paarl, as are the two suspects who were arrested.

The two suspects are expected to appear in an Orlando court tomorrow before they return to Cape Town to face trial.

Police lauded the “unrelenting efforts of Western Cape detectives to fight extortion in this province”.

One of the victims disappeared from Harare in Cape Town last week. His captors demanded a ransom. “The circumstances surrounding the extortion and kidnapping cases are still under investigation and the identities of the victims are not disclosed at this premature stage,“ a police statement read.

In Polokwane, business mogul Nazim Moti and his family are sick with worry after their four sons were snatched while they were en route to their private school - Curro Heuwelkruin.

By yesterday, no ransom or extortion demands had been made for Zidan, 6, Zayyad, 11, Alaan, 13, and Zia, 15, who were abducted by seven men, armed with R5 rifles and dressed in white overalls.

Moti and his wife, Shakira, have declined to comment and referred queries to their lawyer, Philip Smit, who said the family were still reeling from the ordeal.

However, Smit said they would not entertain any media requests or interviews. “We have been advised by the police to not engage (on the matter) as the investigation is in a sensitive phase and we cannot risk the safe return and well-being of the children.”

Moti is the chief executive of Moti Auto, a Polokwane-based car dealership that has been operating for the past 25 years.

An investigator, who spoke on condition of anonymity, believes securing a hefty ransom was the motive for the kidnapping, but the investigator was unable to provide further details for fear of tipping off the suspects.

The source confirmed that a large contingent of officers made up the operational team, including private security companies, to enable an extended search.

Meanwhile, Ethiopians in Cape Town have told Weekend Argus they felt “very unsafe”.

Dutamo Bufebo, secretary of WCC (Women and Children at Concern) International, an organisation looking after Ethiopians in the city, said he was “very worried”. Bufebo himself has been a victim of crime. He said he was kidnapped in Khayelitsha in 2017. “I ran a small shop there. They beat me. I was very scared.”

Bufebo said he was taken a second time by criminals a year later, in Worcester. “I was driving a small car. Armed robbers kidnapped me and held me for two days. I told them I don’t have money and that I was working for someone.” He said he was eventually freed.

Genet Regassa, also from Ethiopia, who has been living in Cape Town for 12 years, said: “I am not safe at all.”

The mother of three said she had been robbed and hijacked too. “I was attacked in Mfuleni in 2019. I had a small business, washing clothes for people. I was cooking takeaways and delivering orders. They hijacked the car I was in and took everything. I didn’t want to fight with them. They were many. They had guns. I said ’take everything. Just don’t hurt my children’.”

Regassa said she reported the matter to the Blue Downs police station but hasn’t had any feedback since.

The recent kidnapping of Ethiopian nationals and Moti’s children has the Institute for Security Studies (ISS) concerned. “The kidnappings are a disturbing trend. It has been on and off, and it seems to be back again after a slow start to the year,” said ISS senior researcher Martin Evi.

Speaking specifically about the Ethiopian kidnappings, Ewi said: “When we see these kinds of kidnappings, it can either be related to what is happening in Ethiopia, or they (the victims) could just have been in the wrong place. But there is the ongoing conflict in the Tigray region, and we hope this is not as a result of that.”

Guy Lamb, a political scientist at Stellenbosch University, said foreign nationals in Cape Town were also at risk of human traffickers.

“Ethiopians make up a significant portion of the undocumented migrants. Some individuals are looking for cheap labour, and the foreign nationals are quite desperate. And then (they) get taken into human trafficking rings. You will find that some criminal networks are connected to people who are happy to pay next to nothing for slave labour.”

Lamb warned “vulnerable foreigners” in the city to be particularly careful of “those who promise jobs and gainful employment”.

Lizette Lancaster, manager of the crime and justice information hub at the Institute for Security Studies, said the rate at which kidnapping has proliferated over the past decade was “staggering and shocking”.

Lancaster revealed that there had been a 130 percent increase in the number of kidnappings in South Africa between October 2011 and March 2020.

“Around 45 percent were associated with robberies like hijackings where people are driven to withdraw cash or are forced to open safes, 27 percent of kidnappings happen where the motive is sexual offences, and the figure for abductions for ransom or extortion was 5 percent.”

Lancaster said it is not known for certain at this stage, but the Moti kidnappings appeared to fit the last category.

“It seems to be the work of a highly organised group that had intimate knowledge of the family. What the motive is remains unknown.”

She said the number of kidnappings for the period between April 2019 and March 2020 was 6 630, which reflected a 16 percent increase on the previous term.

“If broken down further, the daily average for kidnappings in South Africa was 18.

“What about the instances that are not reported?” asked Lancaster.

She said it was heartening that the country had highly specialised police members dealing with this type of kidnapping and that top police officers, who were privy to all sorts of technology, had been assigned to the Moti matter.

Professor Nirmala Gopal, from the University of KwaZulu-Natal’s criminology and forensic studies department, said the statistics were significantly high by any standards.

“The exponential increase should give the police sleepless nights - 40% of kidnappings linked to carjacking demonstrates South Africa’s violent nature.”

Gopal believed perpetrators of kidnapping had multiple motives, ranging from personal vendettas against family members to friends who may have slighted the perpetrator knowingly or unknowingly.

“The extreme anger that the perpetrator probably experienced might manifest itself in the cruel, irrational kidnapping act.

“Then there are those kidnappers who are hired to abduct by some other individuals driven by greed. However, the result is still inhumane and instils terror in the victim.

“What the public should be aware of is that people within their circles might be potential kidnappers. This is not to cause panic but rather to serve as a precautionary measure. Individuals should be circumspect about what they or people in their networks share about their personal lives on public platforms like Facebook,” warned Gopal.

Mari Lategan, Curro spokesperson and executive of corporate services, said they were supporting both law enforcement and the Moti family.

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