THE South African government is searching for ways to fight mounting lawlessness and has decided it is high noon. Reminiscent of the American Wild West, ``wanted'' posters are about to pop up throughout the country.
Nationwide, political violence has dropped by two-thirds since the first all-race elections last April - despite continued fighting between the African National Congress (ANC) and Zulus supporting the Inkatha Freedom Party in KwaZulu/Natal Province.
But relief over such trends has been overtaken by concerns about rising police killings and gangsterism. At least 164 police have been killed this year. The illegal drug trade is expanding, car hijacking has become a major problem, and serious crimes such as murder and rape are soaring.
Sydney Mufamadi, national safety and security minister, pledged on Aug. 22 to boost police numbers in flash-point areas by 40 percent as soon as possible, particularly in black townships.
He said riot police would be deployed for preventive patrols, and wanted posters would help to involve the public in the fight against rising crime.
``The apartheid dispensation led to a skewed allocation of resources. For example, 80 percent of all police stations are in white areas,'' he said.
Mr. Mufamadi's actions are in response to mounting criticism over the new national government, which has successfully presided over a huge decline in political violence but appears to have let crime get out of control.
Between January 30 and May 9, South Africa's Human Rights Committee recorded 1,358 deaths in political violence. But only 457 deaths from such causes were recorded in the 100 days since President Nelson Mandela's inauguration.
In the first three months of 1994, 4,849 people were murdered - about 650 more than the same period in 1993, says Andy Pieke, a police spokesman here. In most cases the criminals and victims were black.
But in July, 14,039 people were arrested for crimes including murder, rape, and robbery compared with 7,567 in April when the elections were held, he adds.
PIMVILLE is one of the few relatively affluent, ``respectable'' suburbs of Soweto. Yet Jabu Moleketi, a black Cabinet minister responsible for finance in the regional Parliament in Johannesburg, was recently hijacked there. The attackers forced him out of his moving car, which he has not seen since the incident.
Mr. Moleketi is just one of 10 members in the provincial Parliament who have had their cars hijacked or stolen in recent weeks in the Johannesburg area. The hijackings are not random but the work of crime syndicates that often smuggle the cars into Zambia and other African countries in return for illicit drugs, which are then sold in South Africa, Moleketi says.
Car thefts, with an annual turnover of about 600 million pounds' worth of vehicles, have become an industry for a country in which almost half the potential working population has no formal employment. Police figures show that 90,000 cars were hijacked or stolen in the past 12 months.
In one July weekend, 55 cars were taken forcibly in the Johannesburg area. An average of 25 cars are taken nationally by force each day. They included incidents in which robbers wielding AK-47 rifles surrounded vehicles, forcing out occupants before speeding away. The occupants are fortunate if they are not kidnapped, raped, or murdered in the process.
According to Capt. Dolph Jonker, head of a police vehicle theft unit in Johannesburg, about 90 percent of such hijackings are carried out by crime syndicates. He says the cars are hijacked by ``gangs of unemployed youngsters.
Mr. Pieke says South Africa's hijacking problem could be related to the large number of available illegal weapons.
Jesse Duarte, the provincial safety and security minister in Johannesburg, says there are too many guns in the country and has proposed a temporary amnesty and indemnity system to encourage criminals to hand over illegal guns to the police.
``I think we will only get 10 percent of the illegal weapons that are out there through a campaign like that, but I would be happy with 10 percent [fewer] illegal weapons,'' Ms. Duarte says.
In the provincial government's own recent anticrime campaign, police threw up roadblocks in townships in the region and seized a number of illegal weapons.
But the cost of such measures may be high. The country is already feeling a backlash from criminals: Drug barons plotted to kill the provincial premier, Tokyo Sexwale, a leading member of the ANC, and to kidnap his father, Duarte says.
Mr. Sexwale says the battle against criminals and illegal drugs will not be stopped despite the alleged assassination threats, and South Africa will not allow itself to be torn apart by Colombian-style drug wars. ``We can't allow this country to go down the road of Colombia. It will not go that road. No drug lords will ever establish empires here. They are fooling themselves. It is a different country.''