South Africa

Analysis: Joburg, Gotham City without Batman

By Alex Eliseev 20 October 2013

A respected Johannesburg forensic investigator was gunned down on Friday, in what could only have been a calculated, cold-blooded hit. The brazen nature of this crime says a lot about what kind of city this is becoming. Politicians boast that Joburg has shaken the reputation of being a “gangster’s paradise”. ALEX ELISEEV begs to differ.

What ever happened to dark alleys, the ‘dead of night’, gun silencers and mysterious fatal car accidents? Has Johannesburg become so wild that criminals have abandoned any attempts to disguise their dark deeds? The murder of Lawrence Moepi sure makes it seem that way.

On Friday, in the middle of a regular morning, a gang of what could only have been assassins, ambushed a man climbing out of his car and gunned him down. Those who heard the gunshots say there were at least five. The man who died that morning, Moepi, was a director at SizweNtsalubaGobodo and a father of two.

The murder took place in the boomed-off parking lot of the company’s Houghton office, right in front of the building’s windows. It was at around 9am, when staff would have been settling down behind their desks, sipping their first cup of coffee. Police say after the shooting, four men jumped into a getaway vehicle and fled the scene, leaving their victim in their exhaust’s wake.

Moepi carried the solid reputation of a man with high integrity and a firm moral compass. He was involved in high-profile cases, one including an investigation into the looting of a special fund set up for the now-disbanded Scorpions. There’s no doubt Moepi made powerful enemies.

Nothing was taken from him during the attack, which led everyone – including the firm’s chairperson Nonkululeko Gobodo – to raise questions about the murder.

A good man has died today,” she said. “A man who shouldn’t have died. A man who was just doing his job.”

She went on: “This was a father. This was a husband to someone. This was a son to someone, whose life has been taken… what kind of country is this where a life means nothing?”

Those in the know describe Moepi as smart, talented and a “magnificent person” who worked like a demon. He apparently has a son in matric and a young daughter and was a loving father to them. His family is now torn apart.

Gobodo adds that Moepi had a bright future at the company and in South Africa in general.

If these descriptions are accurate, it means that in the battle of light and dark, of good and evil, the wrong side has lost a soldier. It’s not the first time. It won’t be the last. But the audacity of the killers should make us all think hard.

Those who pulled the trigger would have assessed their risks and their chances of getting caught. Their actions clearly show that they didn’t fear being arrested, nor did they expect the police to investigate the crime properly. They literally walked up to a man in broad daylight, shot him dead and fled.

Just a few days earlier, an underworld figure with links to Radovan Krejcir was assassinated in his car near the Bedford Centre. Lebanese national Sam Issa – or “Cripple Sam” – died in a hail of bullets while waiting for a traffic light to change. Reports say more than 30 rounds were fired. On a Saturday morning. In the middle of a busy suburb.

Rewind a bit further and you get a remotely-controlled car with hidden home-made shotguns trying to gun down Krejcir himself before bursting into flames.

Businessmen being gunned down in alleyways, political assassinations, senior prosecutors narrowly escaping bullets on dark highways and the bodies of top policemen like Tirhani Maswanganyi (who was a fierce corruption fighter) being found along dirt roads. With these kinds of crimes in the headlines it’s easy to conjure up images of Gotham City where Batman doesn’t exist and the police force is paralysed by internal wars and poor leadership. Or Russia in the 1990s where rival oligarchs hired gangsters to plant car bombs. Or Chicago in the 1920s, when Al Capone established his kingdom through a hail of bullets.

It’s all very dramatic and the statistics show no indication that crime is spiking in the province (despite a bad set of results for the past year). Good cops are still out there and criminals are still being locked up. Journalists report on the activities of the underworld and expose corruption. Violent gangs have not over-run cities or suburbs, turning them into no-go zones where headless corpses hang off highway bridges. There is no such thing as “white genocide”. In short: there is still law and order.

But the questions remain: what does the murder of Lawrence Moepi say about the state of the police? Could crime intelligence have prevented a “good man” from being murdered? Will the killers be caught? (Already, the police have appealed for information from the public). How much longer before a bystander is caught in the crossfire?

The police can’t be blamed for everything. The vast majority of murders happen behind closed doors. But organised crime can be policed. Gangs can be smashed. Gangsters can be locked away. What we’ve seen over the past week shows that the system is not working as it should.

Also, if a forensic auditor is silenced in such a brutal manner, what comes next? Will journalists be shot dead outside their homes? Judges or prosecutors on their way to court? As editor Adriaan Basson said in a tweet: You can’t silence the truth. But seeing these brazen murders play out in the streets can fill even the most virtuous man with fear. Joburg may not be Gotham City, but it’s worthwhile remembering that there’s no superhero out there to rescue us. DM

Alex Eliseev is an Eyewitness News reporter. Follow him at @alexeliseev

Photo: Lawrence Moepi murder scene (Alex Eliseev)

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