Page last updated at 11:11 GMT, Saturday, 18 April 2009 12:11 UK

South Africa's battle with crime

A bus on the election trail from The Congress of the People, COPE, drives past in a street at Khayelitsha, South Africa, Tuesday, April 14, 2009
Opposition parties promise to fight corruption, poverty, crime and unemployment

Crime is the big issue as South Africa goes to the polls on 22 April. Business has joined forces with government to try to defeat the country's criminals, but as Stephen Evans discovers in Johannesburg, lawbreakers often remain one jump ahead.

Everybody knows that crime is a problem in South Africa but its utter pervasiveness still comes as a shock.

Everybody you talk to seems to have their own experience of true horror. It is not something they have just heard about, but something that has happened to them or someone close to them.

I went to the grand headquarters of Standard Bank, the biggest bank in Africa.

The executive who met me at the entrance said the metal detectors there had not managed to stop the robbers the week earlier who had got in with AK-47s and cleared out the cash machine on the seventh floor.

I talked to an economist who told me how his wife had been stopped in her car and had two "Glocks" pressed to her head, as he put it, referring to another gun of choice in Johannesburg.

The house of a professor I visited was as empty as if the removal men had been, which, in a sense, they had.

Community duty

I talked to Goolam Sidat who stands in his store on Pan Africa Square in Alexandra Township where one million people live cheek-by-jowl in what officialdom calls "informal structures" (shacks, to you and me).

Goolam's store sells everything a schoolchild needs.

Robbers threatened to put the baby in the microwave unless they revealed where the jewellery was

He stands in front of neat rows of pencils and notebooks and ties and shirts, carrying on the trade started by his father who came from India in 1942.

Goolam is very matter of fact about robberies. "It happens," is the tenor of his statements. But then he reveals that his brother was shot dead in a robbery behind those very counters.

In the grief of it, he decided to shut up shop for good. But then local people begged him not to, he said. Goolam relented because the people needed him and his goods. It was his duty to them.

Crumbling economy

One of my South African friends told me an accountant friend of his joined the exodus after he and his wife were held up at gunpoint in their own home, by robbers who threatened to put the baby in the microwave unless they revealed where the jewellery was.

They now live in Maidstone in Kent. Not their old luxurious South African lifestyle but you can understand why they went.

A township in Johannesburg
The chasm between rich and poor has not narrowed since the end of apartheid

And South Africa does really need accountants.

About one million South Africans have left since the end of apartheid, often for London or Western Australia and invariably with the very skills an economy trying to raise itself up desperately needs.

On the latest figures, there are about 126,000 armed robberies a year in South Africa, far more than under apartheid, though the figure for murders - 19,000 a year - is lower than before 1994.

Economists say the cost of this crime is the same as a 1% sales tax or a 5% increase in the wage bill - and 5% matters if you are trying to compete with, let us say, China.

Which is why business and government got together to set up Business Against Crime. It advises banks, for example, on how to lessen the risk of having money stolen in transit. It has also just got a special vehicle with equipment that scans number plates to compare them with a database of stolen cars.

They place this truck near the entrance to shopping centres to try to identify potential robbers.

'Levels of greed'

Business Against Crime's chief executive is Siphiwe Nzimande. The day I met him he said he had been two hours late for work because a strike by taxi drivers had turned into a shootout that closed the main road into town.

His colleague in the anti-crime unit chipped in to say that she had had her car stolen at gunpoint, while she was in it.

If we didn't have any hope we would have emigrated to your country
Siphiwe Nzimande
Business Against Crime

Siphiwe is bright and determined. The problem is that once he counters one type of crime, the criminals adapt.

Out-and-out robberies of banks dropped in number, for example, as banks learned how to prevent them, but then cash in transit became the target until measures were tightened there.

Now, the problem is the blowing up of cash machines - in remote areas, increasingly.

The chasm between rich and poor in South Africa has not narrowed since the end of apartheid, though those in the business centres and shopping centres on the rich, right side of the tracks now do include some black people.

I put it to Siphiwe that there might be a Western liberal view that such inequality spawns crime.

He would have none of it. He had walked with complete safety in similarly divided parts of India, he said.

"Our problems are caused by something else," he said firmly. "I think we have levels of greed that are probably higher and levels of immorality and people lacking a good value system."

He said the criminal justice system was weak and the courts and the police needed to catch and punish more people.

But, he concluded, that he still had much hope for the country.

"If we didn't have any hope we would have emigrated to your country but we've got a lot of hope that somewhere down the line we will turn the corner."

From Our Own Correspondent was broadcast on Saturday, 18 April, 2009 at 1130 BST on BBC Radio 4. Please check the programme schedules for World Service transmission times.



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