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Calls for crackdown on gangs in South Africa after spate of gun attacks | south africa

Campaigners in South Africa have called for a crackdown on increasingly powerful organized criminals armed with military-grade weapons, blamed for a string of recent deadly attacks.

Police are looking for suspected gang members who killed 15 people in a tavern near Johannesburg, the country’s commercial capital, using an assault rifle and 9mm pistols on Saturday night.

The attack in the Nomzamo township in Soweto came amid a spate of gun violence. At least seven other people were shot dead in similar attacks elsewhere in South Africa over the weekend.

Adèle Kirsten, the director of Gun Free South Africa, said she hoped the violence would be a turning point. “We should be horrified, outraged. Twenty-three people are shot and killed every day in South Africa and it goes unnoticed. That is wrong and this should draw attention to how many people are dying,” she said.

Four people were killed and eight injured in a shooting at a tavern on the outskirts of the south-eastern city of Pietermaritzburg on Saturday evening. The local mayor, Mzimkhulu Thebolla, said the assault was over very quickly without any robbery, conversation or fight. “Every week we get news of people that have just been shot at randomly,” he said.

South Africa has long been blighted by extremely high levels of violent crime, one of many legacies of decades of rule by the repressive, racist apartheid regime. Killings with guns have been rising year on year for a decade.

National gun crime rates around the world

Once, most deaths were the result of personal quarrels between individuals, experts say, but now an increasing proportion of killings are the work of groups including vigilantes, politically motivated criminal networks and organized gangs.

The military-grade arms used in the attack in Soweto strongly suggest organized criminals were involved, as other individuals do not have the connections to obtain such weapons.

About a third of violent crimes recorded each month involve firearms. Between April 2021 and the end of June 2021, 5,760 homicides were committed in South Africa, one of the highest per capita rates in the world.

Gareth Newham, an expert in crime and security at the Institute for Security Studies in Pretoria, said organized criminals in South Africa were becoming more violent.

“This requires a major policy response. Effective intelligence is essential,” he said. “There are only a certain number of people doing this, so it should be possible to proactively remove the weapons from society … But police don’t seem to even know what the problem is.”

Cyril Ramaphosa, the South African president, called on Sunday for a joint effort by government and communities to tackle the problem.

The continued inability of South Africa’s police forces to enforce the rule of law in parts of the country has led to fierce criticism from opponents and some allies of the ruling African National Congress, which has been in power since the end of the apartheid regime in 1994 .

Many say gun crime is part of much wider problems of governance and the rule of law in South Africa which suffered during the nine-year rule of Ramaphosa’s predecessor Jacob Zuma.

But a major trade union confederation allied to the ANC issued a statement on Monday saying the “gruesome” attack in Soweto was a consequence of “moral degeneration in society which requires urgent intervention by the powers that be, society at large, [and] churches.”

The shootings have revived a fierce debate over reform of gun laws in South Africa. An attempt to end the right to own a gun for self-defence ran into stiff resistance when mooted last year.

Opponents argued that the high level of violent crime meant that “denying people the right to defend themselves amounts to a denial of the right to life, security, and psychological and bodily integrity” and called for better policing.

Kirsten said there was no evidence to back such claims and that the new laws would help reduce the number of weapons available to criminals, making everyone safer. “All the clauses of the bill would help reduce lethal violence with guns… but the government seems to be dragging its feet,” she said.

Writing for News24, a local media platform, one commentator, Adrian Basson, backed the call for better control of firearms. “How many innocent people must be mowed down before we consider much harsher gun control legislation in South Africa?” I have asked.

The biggest source of illegal handguns in South Africa is theft from legal owners. Assault rifles are rare, often originating in caches remaining from the conflicts that wracked southern Africa in the 1970s and 1980s, or stolen from military stores in the region.

There are thought to be 3.8m unregistered illegal firearms in circulation in South Africa, Mozambique and Zimbabwe.

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