South Africa's rising wave of crime

For many blacks, the jobs they thought would come overnight with democracy and the end of apartheid have never materialized.

In the boardroom of South Africa's legendary black newspaper, the Sowetan, there hangs on the wall the following injunction: "What have you done with your freedom, South Africa? Don't let it go to waste. Cherish it."

It is now 13 years since South Africa turned its back on the oppressive era of apartheid and, in a remarkably peaceful transition, embraced democracy. Much has been accomplished as blacks and whites sculpt a new, multiracial nation. But the warning in the Sowetan's boardroom is a reminder that democracy must be nurtured to flourish.

While many of the fruits of freedom have gone to the former black revolutionaries who now hold cabinet posts, sit in Parliament, and hold other government positions with substantial salaries and perks, there remain large numbers of blacks whose impatient, and perhaps unrealistic, expectations of the transition from white power to black have not been met.

Shantytowns have not been replaced with affordable housing. Water and electricity and other basic requirements of the infrastructure to support democracy are still lacking for many. Official agencies are sometimes bastions of bureaucratic incompetence and corruption. In Johannesburg, it can take more than four months to get your car license renewed. Some citizens say they circumvent the system by "buying" their renewals – slipping a bribe to a licensing officer.

South Africa has just outpaced India as the country with the highest incidence of AIDS in the world, and critics say the government has been tardy in grappling with the problem.

Though opportunities have arisen for some upper-class blacks to prosper in business, many others still live in squalor. For many, the jobs that they thought would come overnight with democracy have never materialized. Unemployment is running around 25 percent.

Thus the big cities such as Johannesburg have become seedbeds for robbery and violent hijacking, making crime South Africa's biggest problem. Sometimes it is the work of individuals; sometimes the work of organized gangs. One black editor, while in no way supporting the old apartheid regime, remarks wryly: "There was no city crime or unemployment in the old days. If you were a black without a [residence] pass and a letter from your boss saying you had a job, the police would run you out of town. Today, whether you are black or white, you take your life in your hands if you walk downtown at night."

Crime is apparently not racially motivated. It is black upon affluent black as well as black upon affluent white. It is the war of the have-nots against the haves. Last month Dumisani Kumalo, South Africa's black ambassador to the United Nations, returning from New York to Johannesburg, was tracked from the airport to his suburban home, where his party was held up at gunpoint by robbers demanding wallets, cellphones, and luggage. One of the party was shot in the scuffle.

In the coastal city of Durban, David Canning, the white editor of the morning newspaper, the Mercury, was similarly victimized in his suburban driveway by a group attempting to hijack his car. In the melee, one of the robbers shot Mr. Canning through the driver's window. The robbers got away. Canning recovered.

Such incidents are reported daily. Tourism minister Martinus van Schalkwyk warns that fear about safety is the main reason foreign tourists cite for not visiting South Africa. Though statistics are hard to confirm, officials say murders may run as high as 20,000 a year, one of the highest per capita rates in the world.

In Johannesburg, homes and offices lie protected behind high walls topped with electrified wire. Security cameras and steel gates are common. The building housing British Airways is guarded by dogs and security officers with automatic weapons, dressed like members of a SWAT team. At the US consulate-general, where the threat may be from terrorism, as well as local crime, even Embassy-owned cars must negotiate hydraulically operated pylons, then a caged area where security officers check with mirrors under the car and open hoods and trunks, before permitting access.

Hijackings are so frequent that some car owners have the registration numbers of their vehicles painted on the roofs of their cars so police helicopters can better trace them. Says one diplomat: "A kid who might have to work 20 years to buy a car, says, 'The heck with that, I'll just go out and hijack one.' "

Such are the challenges confronting a society in which prosperity for many of its citizens has not yet kept pace with political change.

John Hughes, a former editor of the Monitor, has just spent a month in Africa.

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