Kidnappings in South Africa have increased by a whopping 183% over the past decade and in the last three months of last year, an average of 45 kidnappings were reported daily.
The kidnapping of wealthy businessmen or even children for ransom usually makes headlines, but it is mainly armed robbery and hijackings that drive up these numbers.
However, experts say kidnappings for ransom, extortion and human trafficking – which currently collectively account for less than 5% of recorded kidnapping incidents – are still a serious source of concern because they indicate an increase in organized crime in the country.
There is often a lot of money involved in this type of crime and it requires large police resources that are not always available.
According to the police’s quarterly crime statistics, a total of 11,702 kidnappings were recorded between April and December last year. It has the annual figure of 10,826, which was recorded from March 2021 to April 2022, far surpassed.
Experts attribute this to an increase in violent and organized crime incidents in the country.
Police statistics from April to September last year show that two thirds (63%) of kidnappings can be linked to armed robberies and hijackings.
Dr. Chris de Kock, independent crime analyst and former head of crime information management at the police, explains that victims in these cases are often detained to gain access to their bank accounts to withdraw money, or they are driven around in the stolen vehicle for a while and then downloaded somewhere else.
He emphasizes that even if victims are only held for a few seconds or minutes, either in a vehicle or their own home during a robbery, it is recorded as kidnapping because any incident where someone is held against their will falls into this category.
De Kock says this is pushing the numbers up sharply, as armed robbery and carjackings are also increasing sharply.
Furthermore, 10% of kidnappings are linked to sexual assault and rape, 7% to revenge and less than 5% to ransom, extortion and human trafficking.
Kidnappings for ransom few, but alarming
Kidnappings where a ransom was demanded increased nationwide by 42 cases from October to December last year: from 86 in the same period in 2021 to 128 last year. Most cases were again reported in Gauteng (76), followed by the Western Cape (15) and KwaZulu-Natal (10).
“These may be small numbers, but they are a serious concern as they are another unique indicator of organized crime. Syndicates are popping up everywhere. Organized crime has increased especially over the last five years. In the past it was more related to drugs, but today there is almost no area where organized crime is not involved,” says De Kock.
The anti-crime activist Yusuf Abramjee says he is just as concerned about kidnappings for ransom which are “increasing dramatically”. He believes that the police must actively intervene to combat this crime.
“Although the police’s anti-kidnapping task forces have made progress in these types of cases, these syndicates seem to be continuing.
“Arrests have already been made, but smaller post-monkey gangs are increasingly trying to capitalize on these types of kidnappings.”
According to Abramjee, smaller crime groups ask for anything from R50 000 to R500 000 for a ransom and the victims are often foreigners.
Larger groups and syndicates again demand millions of rand for the release of their victims. Moreover, they are not in a hurry, which means that victims are sometimes detained for months and even years.
“It is time for the police to introduce an urgent action plan to curb these incidents.”
According to a report by Global Initiative Against Transnational Organized Crime, kidnappings for ransom in South Africa are carried out by, among other things, sophisticated cross-border groups that specialize in so-called “high-value kidnappings”. These people in most cases target high profile people such as wealthy businessmen.
However, this encourages smaller, local crime groups to carry out less sophisticated kidnappings as they see it as an easy way to make money. However, data on this is scarce, as most of these victims come from low income groups and do not report the crime.
Lizette Lancaster, a researcher at the Institute for Security Studies (ISS), says that although the numbers of ransom kidnappings are not in the thousands, there are often large sums of money involved. It also requires a lot of police resources.
She says the kidnappers often have first-hand knowledge of their victims’ financial affairs and know that they have access to a lot of money.
Victims are often business people who own businesses and do business in cash and can be local and international business people.
“There are also many cases where business deals go awry, and then we see that kidnappings are carried out out of revenge and the target is blackmailed. In many of these cases, family members such as children are kidnapped and used to force the real target to comply with demands.
“Kidnappers also have thorough knowledge of people’s routine. They know when people are vulnerable.”
She says that if the police want to reduce the kidnapping rate overall, focused intelligence-driven policing supported by dedicated investigative units and forensic investigations is necessary. “The detection, arrest and prosecution of leading syndicate members will disrupt these crimes and significantly reduce the number of incidents. This in turn will strengthen confidence in the police and reduce levels of fear in communities.
“Provincial kidnapping task forces that have been set up to mainly investigate high-profile kidnappings for ransom or extortion cases have had several successes.”
Parents accuse each other
The private investigator Mike Bolhuis says that many kidnapping cases that are supposed to be reported are never filed – while many people turn to the police in a hurry to report cases of kidnapping.
He refers in particular to cases where parents dispute and a court then decides on custody of the child or children.
Bolhuis says it often happens that one parent files a kidnapping case against the other parent when that parent may have had a visit with the child and does not return the child at a specific time.
According to Bolhuis, in many cases parents abuse a complaint of kidnapping to deprive the other parent of his or her right to access the child or children in court, or to negotiate for other divorce conditions.
He believes another problem is that cases are not always reported or pursued further.
“People also do not report cases in South Africa because the security structure in the country does not allow it. This is due to large-scale corruption, inability and a shortage of specialist units and task teams to investigate and solve crimes such as kidnappings.
“The public knows it, the thugs know it.”
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