2008 : Yet Another Year Of The Gun in KZN

That statistics released by the SAPS during 2008 suggested a downward trend in murder was cold comfort for South Africans.  Their fears are understandable for crime seems to have become more violent during the past twenty years, probably because of the proliferation of guns. Easy access to firearms drives crimes such as hijackings, taxi violence and cash-in-transit robberies(CIT), the use of guns is usual in farm attacks and political assassinations.  The sound of shooting accompanied many of the mid year xenophobic attacks.  Why, when the police in KZN have destroyed almost 12 000 guns during 2008 are there still so many around? The answer lies in the failure of the post-1994 State, through its police and army, to pursue those linked with apartheid era weapons, and to stem the flow of guns from neighbouring war-ravaged countries.

Guns in KZN

According to research at Gale Street mortuary by Prof Steve Naidoo and Shelley Rawsthome, gunshot wounds accounted for 16,3% of homicides in Durban in 1988. By 2003, the proportion of gunshot deaths had jumped to 52.3%.  The latest 2007 figures for the eThekwini metro area, based on data from its three mortuaries, show a continuing high rate of 44%.  While there is no comparative data for other urban and rural areas in KZN, the widespread presence of weapons suggests that Durban may not be atypical.

The jump in gunshot deaths post-1988 coincided with the flooding of weapons into this province during the dying days of apartheid. An analysis of TRC records and court records which document this process reveals dozens of cases in which reference is made to caches of weapons, including huge quantities of AK-47s. Of the 11 800 guns destroyed by the police during 2008 relatively few were AK-47s, and it is not known whether destructions include guns such as R4s which also continue to feature prominently in taxi and CIT violence. It seems that there has been no real effort to locate the guns clearly associated with specific individuals, including the estimated 64 tons of a Vlakplaas consignment (which also included rocket launchers, mines and grenades) delivered to the province in 1993.

Policing and guns

At least twenty police members have reportedly died at the hands of well armed criminals during 2008; police, claiming that they come under attack, shoot suspects dead, with at least 19 known deaths at the hands of police during the last four months of 2008.

The conduct of some police members is part and parcel of the gun problem. In March, in what appears clearly an inside job, 43 guns linked to taxi conflict were stolen from a storeroom at Maphumulo station. According to well informed sources Provincial Management had been apprised of the inadequacy of the storage facilities, but no action had been taken. Senior Supt Chonco was investigating the theft of the guns, and the kwaMaphumulo/kwaDukuza taxi violence, which has been linked to certain police members. He was shot dead in an ambush in August, while on his way to court. One suspect died at the scene, and another six were shot dead in separate incidents by the police before they could appear in court. Dead men tell no tales.

Police members may also also abuse their service guns – killing themselves, their partners and other community members; they may also fail to secure their weapons adequately. Some achieved notoriety during 2008 when they threatened other motorists while driving in blue light vehicles.  There is obviously a need for far stricter control over the use of guns by police members themselves.

Failure of the police to stem taxi violence

The taxi industry appears to have easy access to large quantities of weapons, used in the conflict which continued all over the province during 2008. Threats have also been made to shoot police members impounding vehicles.  Gunshots were fired at buses which were set alight, in competition over routes. In Inanda one unfortunate commuter was burnt to death, having been unable to escape because he had been shot and injured.  Taxi industry violence is compounded by gun-toting private security personnel, as in the Mandeni area where they have been threatening and intimidating commuters and drivers alike as a means of extorting money from them.

The failure of the police to take a firm stand against taxi lawlessness, through instituting regular roadblocks and searches for weapons – using SANDF backup if necessary – suggests that they are not serious about eradicating this type of conflict, which costs so many lives each year.

Political and public violence

A young ANC supporter was shot dead after the party launched its election campaign in Umlazi in August. Political office bearers shot dead this year included Endumeni(Dundee) IFP councillor Petros Nxele, ANC Deputy Mayor of Umkhambathini municipality Johnson Mkhize, and IFP Chairperson at Jacobs hostel, Bhekisisa Mthethwa. Prominent community activist and ANC local government candidate in Gluckstad, Piet Mtshali,was shot dead by the police under highly suspicious circumstances.

ANC/IFP tensions, linked to threats and attacks, continued in a number of areas, including Muden, Elandskop and Camperdown, and intra-party violence linked to corruption in local government also claimed lives. However, 2008 will be remembered for the intra-ANC tensions generated by leadership issues and the organised protest action and war talk which accompanied the court appearances of Jacob Zuma. When leading members of the ANC left to form new party COPE the disruptive conduct by unruly ANC-linked mobs continued, and led to the cancellation of a meeting of the party to be held in Verulam in November.

2008 also had its share of other types of violent, potentially lethal, protest action about service delivery and transport problems – which saw buses and train carriages being burnt. Protest action against street renaming saw thousands of IFP supporters marching through Durban carrying traditional weapons. Zuma-linked protests saw a large crowd of ANC supporters also marching with such weapons, and burning tyres during a march at kwaMashu. It is illegal to carry weapons in public, and the failure of the police to charge those carrying them makes a mockery of the law.

Time to get serious about disarming

The first months of 2009 are likely to be marked by increasing political tensions, as COPE, as well as the ANC and IFP, vie for votes. Various factors exacerbate the risk of violence in the run up to the elections :  In a political climate characterised by intolerance a significant sector of the well armed taxi industry has taken a firm political stand for the ANC. Then there is the presence of a large group of men and women who have been undergoing paramilitary training – including in subversive tactics – who are jobless. They are known to have been using wooden guns for practice and there is good reason to believe that they may have access to weapons stockpiled in this province.

Even if there is no escalation in violence, there is no way in which violent crime will decrease significantly while there are so many illegal weapons around.  Far too many lives have been lost because the government has not taken decisive steps to rid this country of illegal weapons. A good start would be to disarm taxi operators, and to form a hand-picked national team to investigate all reports of illegal weapons, including those in the possession of rogue elements of the private security industry.

Notes:

  1. Information on gunshot deaths in Durban from Naidoo S R and Shelley Rawsthome n.d. ‘A Tale of One City : Durban : The Epidemiology and Pathology, Fatal Violence across 15 years 1988 – 2003  Research Report and Neethling I (ed) ‘A Profile of Fatal Injuries in eThekwini(Durban), addendum to 9th Annual Report of the National Injury Mortality Surveillance System (NIMSS) 2007 Unisa
  2. The estimated 64 tons of Vlakplaas weapons are from one consignment only of approximately 70 tons, some of which was destroyed in a controlled explosion several years ago (see report on Scorpions ‘Trial by Media’ at www.violencemonitor.com
  3. There have been a number of other Monitor reports during 2008 on intra-ANC violence, war talk and Xenophobia, which are still to be posted on the web site.