Kidnapping for ransom is reaching epidemic proportions in South Africa. Criminal gangs, many with foreign links, seem to be able to operate with impunity – creating a climate of fear among many communities. Mushtak Parker reports.
The latest pandemic sweeping South Africa is kidnapping for ransom. Victims are wealthy businesspeople or their family members, some as young as six-years old.
That South Africa is in the middle of a deteriorating law and order situation gives little succour to the victims and their families, friends and communities. They feel helpless and at the mercy of brutal transnational and local criminal gangs who see them as easy prey. Some of the cross-border links extend not only to neighbouring countries but as far away as Nigeria and Dubai.
South African Police Service (SAPS) data, often incomplete and understated, suggests there were some 4,232 kidnappings (over 23 a day on average) between April and September 2021 – up 70% on the 2020’s total which was subdued due to the pandemic lockdown and restrictions. The rate is now over 10 kidnappings per 100,000 people.
That kidnapping for extortion or ransom contributes to about 5% of the SAPS statistic sample is meaningless. No amount of finessing the figures detracts from the fact that South Africa is one of the most violent societies on earth and has the third highest crime rate in the world. The Institute for Security Studies in Pretoria maintains that kidnapping is a global phenomenon: “Political and economic insecurity feeds the growth of local and transnational kidnapping-for-ransom gangs, who target high-value people, foreign visitors or workers from across the globe.”
It is easy to blame poverty, economic and political marginalisation. Organised crime thrives because of a breakdown in effective governance often in collusion with corrupt politicians, law enforcement officers and administrators. It is opportunistic, amoral, driven by greed, self-interest and the single-minded pursuit of money.
Some may even invoke the ‘Legacy of Apartheid’. Dullah Omar, President Mandela’s first Justice Minister, in his last interview before his death, told me that he had to build a justice system from scratch befitting the nascent democracy. This meant jettisoning the Apartheid structures governing law and order and crime and punishment.
Twenty-eight years later, most compatriots believe that the ‘legacy of Apartheid’ argument is long past it sell-by date. Like with the other dire challenges facing the country, the ruling ANC government has shown a callous lack of political will and empathy. ANC politicians are pre-occupied with lobbying and jockeying for position ahead of the party’s National Conference in December. It’s no surprise that there is a lack of focus on governance and service delivery.
Hardly had the latest fatal victim of a botched kidnapping, 40-year-old businessman Khalied Parker, been laid to rest in Cape Town in September, then Police Minister Bheki Cele was hailing the successes in cracking down on kidnapping and extortion cases in the Western Cape, albeit “more still needed to be done.”
While victims are from various backgrounds, there seem to have been a spate of kidnappings targeting Muslim businesspeople in recent months.
Whether the Muslim community has been targeted is a moot point. It may be that most of the businesses in the disadvantaged areas are owned by Muslims, especially Bangladeshis and Pakistanis. The danger is that a new militant anti-crime push back is taking root.
“It is time that we as a (Muslim) community get mobilised,” urges the Imam of Gatesville Mosque in Cape Town. “We need to tell these brutal criminals that we will stand firm as a community. I am not calling for people to take the law into their own hands or for vigilantes. There is already no law. But we have the right to defend ourselves as a community and as individuals.”
There is an international connection which suggests the involvement of South Asian syndicates operating in Dubai and outsourcing the kidnappings to local South African gangs. Several of the ransom demands are for cash in US dollars to be deposited into Dubai bank accounts.
South Africa and Dubai are on the watch list of Anti Money Laundering (AML) watchdogs, the intergovernmental Financial Action Task Force (FATF) and The US Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC).
A recent FATF report raised serious concerns about lapses in South Africa’s AML governance, and OFAC has identified two South Africans in connection with proceeds of crime laundering for use by terrorists.
The Ramaphosa government can ill-afford another dent in its international reputation. Some of its critics at home have already dubbed the party as a ‘criminal enterprise!’ While this is going too far as the party contains some of the best and most honest people in the country, the impunity with which criminals operate reflects very negatively on governance and therefore the country’s image.