Cash-in-transit heists bring terror to South Africa’s roads

A security officer
Image caption,There are more private security guards than police officers in South Africa

Violent crime is soaring in South Africa, with audacious security van heists commonplace and the murder rate at a 20-year high.

For the government – and all those who live here – this grim record is a serious problem.

It is election year, the most competitive since the birth of democracy in 1994, and crime is a key issue.

According to the latest annual statistics, more than 27,000 people were killed in a year. But the number solved has fallen to a grave low, only 12%.

Getting away with murder has become normal.

The combination of high rates of crime, poverty and unemployment make insecurity an overriding concern throughout society.

The brash confidence of violent criminals is vividly illustrated by the very public phenomenon of cash-in-transit hijacks, known here simply as CIT.

Security vans carrying money are rammed off busy daytime roads by deliberate attacks with vehicles, with guards set upon by heavily armed men who use bombs to blow open safes.

Robberies can last extended periods, with motorway traffic continuing normally on the other side of the road while gangs prime their explosives and rove about with automatic weapons, sometimes filmed by onlookers.

A van heist
Image caption,Security vans carrying money are rammed off busy daytime roads

Wahl Bartmann, head of security firm ADT Fidelity, says the gangs are “like a terrorist group”.

“It’s been very military organised, well executed, and if you see the way that they plan these robberies, it’s very difficult for our teams to stop that.”

He wants more help from government, saying CIT services are essential – they pay social grants every month, and move cash for banks and retailers.

Fifteen of the company’s guards were killed last year during robberies.

Lenience, a guard who survived a recent hijacking, says “as a human being I’m scared” and that he prays each morning to survive the day.

“I might not come back – but that’s life for everyone in CIT,” he says, not wishing to use his second name.

A feature of life in South Africa is the sheer number of private security officers, who patrol in vehicles bearing their company logos, and in some areas almost every home and building has a sign showing which firm it relies on.

They now outnumber their police counterparts.

Lizette Lancaster, of South Africa’s Institute for Security Studies, says there has been a “private securitisation of public spaces” in some areas.

“The vast majority of South Africans cannot afford these services but feel equally failed by the police.

“So they often form their own self-help groups – militias and vigilantism is thriving in those communities.”

I joined a response team from ADT Fidelity late one night in Johannesburg. They routinely engage armed robbers, coming under fire and breaking up ongoing hijackings.

Guns in hand in case of sudden trouble, the small convoy set off and an alert quickly arrived – a vehicle had been stolen.

Like other vehicles with a private security subscription, the stolen car had a small electronic tracker secreted within, which robbers desperately try to locate, knowing armed teams can accurately pursue as long as it remains intact.

After a chase into the south of the city, the team spotted two men running from the car’s possible location and they were apprehended at gunpoint.

But they were not the robbers and were let go. The car was found nearby moments later, having been left for a “cooling off period” which allows thieves to check if they are being followed.

Police were called and came to get the car – after it was found by the security team.

South African police
Image caption,The government is recruiting thousands of police officers

The daily threat of crime means the ruling African National Congress, which came to power 30 years ago in April, is under significant pressure to act.

The murder rate fell in the years after the end of apartheid, reaching a low point around a decade ago. Since then, it has increased 62% to the current level – back to where it was 20 years ago.

Detection rates have fallen in tandem, down 55% since 2012, leading to the situation where so few murders are solved.

In response, the government is recruiting thousands of new police officers, with 20,000 joining in the past two years at high-profile events.

At an event in Pretoria in December, new officers paraded in front of cheering crowds, telling me they could not wait to get out on the streets to fight crime.

Bheki Cele, minister for the police, accepts there’s a big issue and says violent crime rates are “not pleasing at all”.

He insists the government is getting “on top of things” and that crime is an “international phenomenon”, citing the recent robbery of West Ham football player Kurt Zouma in the UK to show that violent crime happens in “every country”.

But violent crime levels here are very high by international standards.

In South Africa’s current state of insecurity, the wave of violence will not be quickly turned back.

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