Hollywood-style heists amid a breakdown in law and order
SOUTH AFRICA’S crime lords can be audacious. This month they waited until the country’s top security officials were busy preparing for a briefing on rampant crime at Johannesburg’s international airport, then struck again, hijacking a truck loaded with valuable cargo as it left the gates. The incident was the latest of many. In a particularly brazen heist in March, gunmen impersonating police officers stole 20.7m rand ($1.5m) as the bags of money were being loaded onto a flight to London. A few weeks later, thieves attacked a cash-laden van on a busy highway near the airport, blowing it open with explosives. This dramatic episode was caught on video.
After years of steady decline, serious crime is on the rise in South Africa. Aggravated robbery has jumped by 31% since 2012; murder is up by 20%. The crime appears organised, not opportunistic. Fikile Mbalula, the police minister, admits that many of the airport crimes are inside jobs with collusion from police, security guards and staff. Another type of robbery, known as a “follow home”, is happening with unprecedented frequency. Spotters watch at airports for passengers arriving with fancy bags or exchanging large sums of money. The travellers are then tailed to their homes or hotels and robbed at gunpoint. In similar cases, affluent shoppers are followed home from high-end malls. In one recent attack, a van carrying businessmen was stopped and looted on the off-ramp leading into the airport; the driver was shot and killed. Tourism officials worry that such crimes will deter visitors; South Africa has worked hard to shed its dangerous reputation.
Even law-enforcement agencies and police stations are being targeted by South Africa’s robbers. A break-in this week at offices of the national prosecuting authority, in which laptops were stolen, followed a similar burglary at the Hawks, an elite crime-fighting unit. The office of the chief justice of South Africa’s highest court was burgled in March. The opposition Democratic Alliance fears sinister motives, warning of “a culture of intimidation” against corruption-fighters.
Mr Mbalula has promised to crack down. “If they come with AK-47s, we will outgun them,” he said. But it is the calibre of senior police, not the guns, that worries the critics. Top police jobs are routinely given to political appointees with few qualifications. All three national police commissioners appointed since 2000 have ended their terms in disgrace: one was jailed for corruption, one fired after a scandal over property deals and another found unfit to hold office.
This article appeared in the Middle East and Africa section of the print edition under the headline “Crooks gone wild”