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Thursday, May 27, 1999 Published at 13:06 GMT 14:06 UK

South Africa's crime crisis

Gun-related deaths stand at more than 30 a day

As South Africa prepares for elections, the BBC's Africa Correspondent Jane Standley looks at one of the key issues:

The classified advertisements are generally a revelation in a country's newspapers. South Africa is no exception.

In the "Arms and Ammo" section of the daily Sowetan newspaper, a Johannesburg gun shop is offering "Pre-election cash specials on firearms" - a gun for £85 and a "training licence" for £10.

South African Elections
In the same column, "Artistic Marble and Granite Sales" is running a special offer on tombstones.

The "Sowetan" has a largely black readership: but the mainly white-orientated newspapers carry the same advertisements too.

I hate seeing them - and reading the crime "round-up" columns in the papers - for I know that the guns in this country threaten many more people than me alone.

I talk to black and white South Africans and they are all afraid of guns, of crime.

They are all afraid of the violence which all too often accompanies even a straightforward burglary or mugging.

Daily survival

To live with the statistics is not easy. A serious crime is committed every 17 seconds in South Africa and Johannesburg is the epicentre of the crisis.

The reality behind the statistics means that I live behind a high brick wall, topped with an electric fence.

[ image: Johannesburg: At the epicentre of the crime crisis]
Johannesburg: At the epicentre of the crime crisis
I cannot see the street outside: I cannot see the horizon. My house is alarmed day and night: so is my garage. I pull in and out of it fast: most armed carjackings take place in people's own driveways.

They are often serious in the extreme: they are fatal. I've worked across this continent for years on the basis that I'm happy to call an aggressive man with a gun "Sir" and to give him what he wants.

So far I have survived the ill-disciplined rebel fighters, militiamen and soldiers. But in South Africa it is different - the armed men don't always give you the chance to hand the car over. They just shoot.

Of course, sometimes they don't shoot. But it is the fear of what may happen which is paralysing, which restricts your life, which is a daily exhausting stress.

It's also an extreme irritant - as for some white South Africans, crime and how in their view the country has gone to the dogs since a black government took over five years ago, is a favourite topic of conversation.

New traumas

There seems to be a major block in understanding sometimes that the racism, poverty, restrictions on education and employment opportunities which were handed out to black South Africans by the state during the decades of apartheid must have had some effect.

[ image: Self-protection - even using anti-theft 'car blaster' devices - is commonplace]
Self-protection - even using anti-theft 'car blaster' devices - is commonplace
For a people so traumatised, the fact that there has been so little revenge since the first all-race elections five years ago, is nothing short of miraculous.

But nothing can excuse the unnecessary loss of life every day in this country through violent crime.

It adds new traumas onto the old - for black people as well as whites are the victims.

The other day, one of my colleagues returned from the bank. He had been queuing up inside when outside on the pavement a security guard delivering cash was murdered by a gang of armed robbers.

The guard had already handed over what he was carrying; he was lying face down in supplication. But one of the robbers shot him at point blank range.

The guard was black - forced no doubt by unemployment levels into this dangerous job - and his family may have lost their only breadwinner.

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