By TERRY LEONARD
The Associated Press
Saturday, August 26, 2006; 10:55 PM
JOHANNESBURG, South Africa -- Watch your back in South Africa. They kill folks here. Murder them at a bewildering rate.
Robbers kill their victims, bystanders kill criminals, family members kill each other.
Gunbattles erupt on streets and in shopping malls. Passers-by whip out pistols and join in firefights between criminals and police or security guards. A recent flurry in high profile bloodshed even has police suggesting they are losing the fight with violent crime.
Plans for South Africa to host soccer's next World Cup, in 2010, has focused international attention on the crime rate, with organizers having to answer questions not just about whether they'll have enough stadiums and hotel rooms, but whether the 350,000 foreign visitors expected for the monthlong tournament will be safe.
Statistically a South African is 12 times as likely to be murdered than the average American and his chances of being killed are 50 times greater than if he lived in western Europe.
"This is an extraordinarily violent society and nobody understands it," said Peter Gastrow, a crime analyst at the Institute for Security Studies in Cape Town.
There are plenty of theories, many tied to South Africa's unique history and the belief that the struggle against apartheid created a culture of lawlessness, Gastrow said.
"The reasons seem to be unbelievably complex. There is no explanation that makes sense. The million dollar question is, 'Why?' If we could understand that we could start to fix it. But we can't. All we can do now is ask religious people to pray for us," he said.
The government contends it has made progress, reducing some types of crime and leveling off others. Still, after recent highly publicized cases, including the deaths of 17 people in just two incidents in June and July, the government had to promise a much tougher stance, saying police will be much more aggressive.
At the same time, the government tries to reduce attention paid to crime by having police release crime statistics only once a year.
The last statistics available showed that between April 2004 and March 2005, 18,793 people were murdered in South Africa, an average of 51 a day in a nation of 47 million. There were 24,516 attempted murders, 55,114 reported rapes and 249,369 assaults with grievous injury.
The government has not released newer figures, but contends there have been slight improvements.
Gastrow said studies show the levels of anxiety about crime are higher now than they were in the 1990s when violent crime was at its peak. People don't trust the government figures, and there is an accumulation of fear from years of horrendous crime, he said.
South Africans, especially whites, are among the best armed private citizens on Earth.
There are approximately 4.5 million registered firearms in the country, including more than 2.8 million handguns. The government estimates there also are 500,000 to a million unregistered firearms. Tens of thousands of the weapons are reported stolen each year, feeding a flourishing underground market in illicit arms.
Gun Free South Africa, a private gun-control advocacy group, says more people are shot and killed in South Africa than die in car accidents.
Under apartheid it was easy for whites to buy firearms. But since the end of apartheid in 1994, the government has tried to tighten controls. Parliament approved a system of phased controls, setting deadlines for various steps in making gun ownership increasingly difficult.
But Gastrow said bureaucratic delays and entanglements have pushed back all the deadlines to the point of being meaningless.
In Johannesburg in June, cops and robbers shot it out for hours in what has become known as "the Jeppestown massacre." The gunmen killed four captured policemen, riddling their bodies with bullets. Two of the officers, knowing the end was near, died together, embracing each other as they were repeatedly shot. Eleven suspects were killed.
Armed robbers also recently held up a children's soccer match at a private elementary school, holding the preteen players at gunpoint while accomplices stole cell phones, money and jewelry from parents and players.
Shaun Dennison, the owner of a small hotel and a police reservist, said robbers often just shoot someone during a robbery so the first phone calls after they leave are for medical help rather than police.
Several years ago, a robber held a gun to Dennison's head during a robbery at a used furniture store and pulled the trigger twice. Both times the gun misfired, he said, so the robber pistol whipped him and then ran with his five accomplices. Dennison pursued.
"We were just standing in the middle of the street shooting at each other. We kept shooting at each other until I killed one of them and the others tried to run away," he said.
He ended up killing three of the robbers and the other three escaped. One bystander was wounded. Dennison was briefly charged with murder but not arrested. Under South African law the charge was a technicality required until a magistrate ruled the deaths were justifiable homicide.
The minister for safety and security, Charles Nqakula, provided a blemish for the government's public relations effort when he suggested not long ago that people who complain about crime should just leave the country.
He spoke shortly before the Jeppestown massacre. After that, a shaken Nqakula publicly urged police officers to "use firearms to defend yourself and the lives of all peace-loving South Africans."
Rank and file officers, concerned that 54 police comrades were killed during the first six months of the year, held a demonstration to demand more powerful weapons and increased training to cope with organized, professional and better armed criminals.
"They are killing us. We need protection from the state," Tinus Ntimane, the police union's regional secretary, told The Star newspaper in Johannesburg.