Is the devil on the loose, or is it just in my head?


Is the devil on the loose, or is it just in my head?

ANNALIESE BURGESS says the mass rape of eight women on an abandoned mine dump has caused a short circuit in her brain about South Africa's crime levels. This article was first published in Vrye Weekblad in August 2022.


IT was another bloody month. In just two days, 25 people lost their lives in four separate mass murder incidents in shebeens. People were mowed down in streets and in a convenience store. On a farm in the Free State, seven people were murdered — a 12-year-old boy was drowned in a bathtub.

I have felt the unravelling for a while. An underlying awareness that the monster of violence is becoming hungrier. That the tentacles of crime are sucking deeper and the unacceptable is becoming more commonplace.

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A ping on our WhatsApp group. Just before three o'clock on an ordinary afternoon in January: “Fatal shooting at Hildasia." It's a general dealer along a road we drive to school at least twice a day. Brandon, the owner, whose children are at my daughter's school. His baby was two weeks old when he was shot dead by four robbers behind his counter. They drove away in a blue Polo with money from the till (and seven months later, they're still at large).

I receive a video from former RSG broadcaster Cobus Bester of a daylight shooting in front of a pharmacy in Melville, Johannesburg. You see a guard in a black uniform hiding behind a wall; every now and then he tries to shoot around the corner — at whom, you can't see.

A friend who lives in Chintsa here in the Eastern Cape has experienced two robberies at their business in the past two months. They're the first in more than 40 years.

My child's former caretaker sends me desperate messages. She needs to get out of Khayelitsha. Can I help with money to build a new shack in Langa? It's safer there. Things are getting very bad. The tsotsis are threatening her son. And it's just a matter of time before she or her daughter will be raped. So many women are being raped, she says almost hysterically in a voice note. She tells me she has been raped before in Philippi, and she can't go through “something like that" again.

Colleague Piet Croucamp finds himself in the middle of a robbery at a Johannesburg filling station. He hides in a shower with petrol attendants while men with semi-automatic rifles hijack a Range Rover and rob customers of watches, rings and cellphones.

As a middle-class person who enjoys so much more privilege than most people, I almost feel guilty talking about crime. Because I know how much worse it is in Manenberg than in Melville.

That's how abnormal this country is.

That the experience of crime should be measured somewhere between “thankfully no one is dead, thankfully no one has been raped" and mass murders where 12 people are slaughtered in Khayelitsha or 16 people die in Soweto. Or children are shot in the head in Lentegeur.

And we're not even talking about political assassinations and taxi violence and transit robberies that have become so much a part of our everyday lives that they barely cause a ripple on our radar.

That's how abnormal this country is.

Short circuit in my brain

The mass rape of eight women on a deserted and remote mine dump causes a short circuit in my brain.

I can't find the words to explain to my brain what to think. There's only a paralysing disbelief, a shattering, helpless anger. As a woman. As a South African. How is it possible that a group of men, with knives and guns, crawl out of holes in the ground and gang-rape a group of women in daylight? Over and over. Men taking turns. In the day? In the light?

In the days following this horrifying attack, the deputy director-general for minerals and petroleum regulation, Tseliso Maqubela, says they take the incident “quite seriously". And then, almost shrugging it off in a what-do-you-expect-us-to-do-now manner, he explains that the zama-zamas “are organised military people … and the situation with illegal miners is similar to a war".

As if we don't already know. And as if we should be surprised. And as if it's not his responsibility, as a high-ranking government official, to protect us against this war of organised crime.

That we have a minister of police who dares to describe a woman as “fortunate" to be raped by only one man. And then goes on to spew absurdities like: “I could not imagine a beautiful woman with a zama-zama."

That he talks about “unleashing all the forces", but the day after the mass rape, potential forensic evidence still litters the scene. (Hear me now: there won't be enough evidence to find the men who were arrested guilty of rape.)

This is how abnormal this country is.

Weave the facts together

The mass murders are filling our heads, but the footprints of crime are everywhere. Let's knit a few other facts together. This is what the figures for murder and rape look like:

  • The latest crime statistics show there was a 22% increase in murder in the first quarter of this year: 1,107 more people were killed in South Africa than in the same period last year.
  • The murder of children increased by 37.2%, and the murder of women by 70.5%. Nearly 11,000 rapes were reported.

This is what the conviction rates in South Africa look like:

  • For murder, it's 20%; thus, 80 out of every 100 murders remain unsolved.
  • For sexual offences, it's a meagre 5.3%; for 95 out of every 100 rapes or other sexual assaults, no one will be convicted.

Now let's add the alarming increase in organised crime to the bubbling pot of incompetence that is our criminal justice system:

  • In the past year, there have been more than 150 attacks on passenger buses. Just between January and June, the number stands at 110; they are therefore sharply increasing. Supermarkets are being threatened not to sell bus tickets. The head of Intercape, Johann Ferreira, says he believes the attacks are part of a campaign by taxi organisations.
  • The “construction mafia", with organised gangs demanding 30% of the price of all infrastructure projects, according to this report, has spread from KwaZulu-Natal to the rest of the country.
  • Attacks on freight trucks haven't stopped either.
  • Extremely violent transit robberies also continue.

Is it all just in my head?

Guy Lamb is a professor of criminology at Stellenbosch University. I call him to ask if things are really unravelling as it seems.

“The statistics tell the story. The police figures show that there has been an increase in the murder rate since 2010-11. It stabilised during the lockdown, but after Covid it was like adrenaline in the veins as possibilities opened up again. There is now a drastic increase in murder and violent crime in certain parts of the country, such as Cape Town and Gqeberha, especially where there is gang activity. In parts of Johannesburg, like these old mine areas, there is definitely also a collapse of law and order."

And how does he explain the recent wave of mass murders?

“Covid and the war in Ukraine have had serious implications for both the legitimate and illicit economy," says Lamb. “Organised crime networks feel the pressure, and there is increasing competition between different groups, especially between street gangs and those specialising in extortion.

“Historically, most mass shooting incidents in South Africa have been driven by three factors: gang warfare, competition in the taxi industry, and factional fights or ‘inter-group feuds', especially in KwaZulu-Natal. This type of collective violence is usually committed to control certain areas and resources. And one attack tends to lead to retaliatory attacks.

“We know, for example, that mass shooting incidents since 2017, especially in Khayelitsha in the Western Cape, have increasingly been linked to extortion by gangs where township businesses and residents are terrorised to pay protection fees."

I also touch base with Ian Cameron of Action Society SA, a civil rights organisation focused on gender-based violence on the Cape Flats.

“It's not just in your head," he assures me. “There is undoubtedly an absolute decline of the general criminal justice system. The police are falling apart. There is no proactive intelligence gathering. The courts are not functioning as they should. Policing is virtually non-existent in large parts of the country. And the additional socioeconomic situation creates this perfect storm for petty crime. And ultimately, petty crime becomes organised crime as criminals become more organised."

Cameron and Lamb agree: crime will not be brought under control without an improvement in the economic reality. There will also need to be a massive recalibration of the police. And that doesn't just mean more boots on the ground as promised by Bheki Cele in his thunderous speeches.

Such an effort will indeed have to be highly focused on a specialised approach, says Lamb. “Specialised units. Specialised investigators. And a strategy to take illegal weapons out of circulation. The focus should be on organised crime because organised crime drives crime in general. And access to weapons drives organised crime."

In other words: Do the obvious. Redesign the wheel. Fix what has been broken.

This is how abnormal this country is.

♦ VWB ♦

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