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A Drop in the Ocean: Dealing With Gun Violence in South Africa

Eugene Soros, Kwazulu-Natal, South Africa, August 27, 2006

A member of the South African Police destroying illegal firearms. (Photo: Anna Zieminski / AFP-Getty Images)

Escalating gun violence in South Africa's Kwazulu-Natal province led authorities to launch an operation in Durban north, Midlands, Ulundi, Umzinkulu, Durban South, Umfolozi, and Uthukela to seize unregistered firearms.

In its first month, March, the operation netted almost 7,000 firearms. Midlands had the highest number of illegal firearms recovered with 2440 followed by Durban north areas with 1386.

The member of the executive council (M.E.C.) for safety and security in Kwazulu-Natal, B. H. Cele, in an address in the provincial house, said the existence of illegal firearms is a burning issue, particularly in a province with a history of political and other violence.

He said that his department would therefore be calling on all sectors, all communities, and people of all ages, to join in the fight for de-armament.

By the end of July, his department had begun to examine registration processes and to monitor the police closely to ensure that the Firearms Control Act was being implemented.

According to Police Chief Rola Naidoo, firearms and ammunition are the biggest contributors to violent crime in the province.

"South Africa is by no means the most crime-ridden country in the world. We are rather criticized for having the highest incidence of violence associated with various crimes. We are known as an aggressive and violent nation. This image must change. The proliferation of illegal firearms continues to grow and feed violence in our society."

Both personnel and financial resources will be mobilized around this program for de-armament. The province is proactively calling on all communities, through social crime prevention programs, to expose culprits in their communities that are brandishing illegal firearms.

"We believe that a massive social mobilization campaign is needed where every citizen of this country, young and old, white or black, man or woman, will understand the seriousness of this matter and will undertake their responsibility in terms of disclosing information to the police, discouraging children from buying toy guns, and promoting a peaceful and gun-free society,"   Cele said.

The crime situation presents a threat to the hosting of major events such as the 2010 World Cup. The premier has already initiated consultations with various role-players to ensure that they overcome this challenge effectively.

It has been established by the Institute of International Affairs in South Africa that high crime and violence levels scare away investors and has fatal consequences for economic growth, development, job creation, and the eradication of poverty.

There is a growing consensus among policy makers, researchers, and nongovernmental organizations that the root cause of South Africa's violent crime problem is availability and abuse of firearms. Handguns and assault weapons have become the fastest growing cause of violence in South Africa, according to Gun Free South Africa (G.F.S.A.), a nongovernmental organization.

No one knows exactly how many guns are currently out there, but Glen Oosthuysen of the Institute of International Affairs in South Africa reveals that firearms were used in 43,279 of the 68,320 total robberies reported in 2000.

"Despite popular perception, it is not the AK-47 rifle which is the most used weapon, but rather pistols and revolvers which have been smuggled into the country or stolen from legal license holders and policemen," noted Oosthuysen.

In 2001, for instance 23,518 firearms were reported stolen. There are approximately over 4 million licensed guns in the country.

In recent years, the just ended wars in Mozambique and Angola were often blamed as the main contributors to the supply of arms in South Africa. But South Africa also produces its own weapons. Its huge defense industry, employing some 50,000 people in 700 companies, manufactures a range of weaponry, from guns and bombs to heavy artillery.

It is easy to obtain a gun in South Africa. An examination of the firearms registry revealed that a number of 16-year-olds have been licensed to carry firearms. In the last few years, over 15,000 licenses have been approved, creating a backlog. On a negative note, there are more than 26,000 convicted criminals with licensed guns and over 12,300 individuals who own 10 or more firearms.

In an international survey last June by the Control Arms Campaign, which is jointly run by Amnesty International and Oxfam, 72 percent of South Africans said they were worried about criminal violence, putting them in third place behind Brazilians and Guatemalans, at 94 percent and 88 percent, respectively.

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