Activists in South Africa have called for a crackdown on increasingly powerful organized criminals armed with military-grade weaponry, responsible for a string of recent deadly attacks.
Police are searching for suspected members of a gang 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 Nomzamo township in Soweto came amid a wave of gun violence. At least seven other people were shot dead in similar attacks elsewhere in South Africa over the weekend.
Adele Kirsten, 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 slaughtered every day in South Africa and it goes unnoticed. It is wrong and it should draw attention to the number of people who are dying,” she said.
Four people were killed and eight injured in a shootout at a tavern on the outskirts of the southeastern town of Pietermaritzburg on Saturday night. Local mayor Mzimkhulu Thebolla said the assault ended very quickly with no robbery, talking or fighting. “Every week we get news of people who have just been randomly shot,” he said.
South Africa has long been plagued by extremely high levels of violent crime, one of the many legacies of decades of rule by the repressive and racist apartheid regime. Murders with firearms have been increasing year on year for a decade.
In the past, most deaths were the result of personal feuds between individuals, experts say, but today a growing proportion of killings are the work of groups including militias, politically motivated criminal networks and organized gangs.
The military-grade weapons used in the Soweto attack strongly suggest that organized criminals were involved, as other people 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, a crime and security expert at the Institute for Security Studies in Pretoria, said organized criminals in South Africa were becoming increasingly violent.
“This requires a major political response. Effective intelligence is essential,” he said. “There are only a certain number of people who do this, so it should be possible to proactively remove the weapons from society… But the police don’t even seem to know what the problem is.”
South African President Cyril Ramaphosa on Sunday called for a joint government and community effort to tackle the problem.
The continued failure of South African police forces to enforce the rule of law in parts of the country has drawn heavy criticism from opponents and some allies of the ruling African National Congress, which has been in power since the end of of the apartheid regime in 1994. .
Many say gun crimes are part of much wider governance and rule of law problems in South Africa that suffered during the nine-year rule of Ramaphosa’s predecessor, Jacob Zuma.
But a major trade union confederation allied with the ANC issued a statement on Monday saying the “horrific” attack in Soweto was a consequence of “society’s moral degeneration which requires urgent intervention by the powers that be, society in his outfit, [and] churches.”
The shootings have reignited a fierce debate over the reform of gun laws in South Africa. An attempt to end the right to own a firearm for self-defense was met with strong resistance when it was mooted last year.
Opponents argued that the high level of violent crime meant that “denying people the right to defend themselves amounted to a denial of the right to life, security and psychological and physical integrity” and called for a better font.
Kirsten said there was no evidence to back up these claims and that the new laws would help reduce the number of guns available to criminals, making everyone safer. “All of the clauses in the bill would help reduce lethal gun violence…but the government seems to be dragging its feet,” she said.
Writing for News24, a local media platform, commentator, Adrian Basson, backed the call for better gun control. “How many innocent people need to be shot before much tougher gun control legislation can be considered in South Africa?” He asked.
The biggest source of illegal handguns in South Africa is theft from legal owners. Assault rifles are rare, often coming from leftover caches from the conflicts that ravaged southern Africa in the 1970s and 1980s, or stolen from military stores in the region.
There are believed to be 3.8 million illegal unregistered firearms in circulation in South Africa, Mozambique and Zimbabwe.
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