Cash-in-transit heists are headline news once again. Statistics point to a surge in the number of these crimes. More so than this though, an incident two weeks ago in which two security vans were targeted, in the midst of busy mid-morning traffic in Boksburg, dramatically enhanced the public profile of these crimes.
Cellphone video clips captured by motorists, and people in surrounding buildings, show gunmen with automatic rifles taking positions at street corners, enabling their accomplices to set explosives on the cash-in-transit armoured vehicles. Subsequent images show cash strewn over the road as a result of the blasts. Five suspects allegedly involved in this case have subsequently been arrested and appeared in court.
It is worth reflecting on the current heists against the backdrop of the last major surge in these crimes and the role that they played in the politics of that time.
Over the seven years between April 2004 and March 2011, the SAPS recorded 2,500 heists with the highest number, 467, in the 2006-2007 financial year. One incident in particular, in September 2006 in Limpopo, gave the cash-in-transit gangs a public reputation for cold-bloodedness. Four security guards were burnt to death in their van after the robbers allegedly poured a flammable liquid over it and set it alight, apparently indifferent to the suffering of the victims.
The initial years of the heists surge, roughly a decade ago, coincided with the titanic struggle over the leadership of the ANC, between those aligned with Thabo Mbeki and those aligned with Jacob Zuma, and the heists ended up playing a symbolic role in this battle. Thabo Mbeki tends to be remembered for his AIDS denialism, but another characteristic of his presidency was a persistent frustration on Mbeki’s part with the level of attention devoted to the issue of crime in public discourse.
In a period in which whites were still struggling to come to terms with their loss of political dominance in South Africa, “crime talk” in public discourse was not simply about crime. “Crime talk” was intertwined with “race talk”, frequently an expression of white social and economic insecurities and anxieties about the democratic era and majority rule.
Mbeki, it would appear, regarded the level of attention given to crime as an annoyance. Talk about crime, in Mbeki’s view, seems to have been an expression of white disdain for black rule. To endorse a concern with crime would be to affirm a discourse about crime which, Mbeki believed, was imbued with racist ideas.
The evidence shows that overall murder rates declined from 1994 onwards but this was only a very gradual decline from very high levels. The post democratisation period was simultaneously associated with significant shifts in patterns of crime. Violent crime had started to impact much more heavily on more affluent South Africans, often in the form of offences such as car hijacking and home robbery. At their worst these types of predatory crimes were associated with sexual violence, murder, and the torture of crime victims.
But, though opinion polls showed that most South Africans were more concerned with jobs and housing, this did not mean that crime was not a concern for the less affluent. Mbeki continued to downplay the issue but the Zuma camp recognised that crime was more than just an elite concern.
Paradoxically, despite the fact that Zuma himself was accused of corruption, and that his ascent to power involved destroying the Scorpions – one of the South Africa’s principle crime fighting institutions – the Zuma camp were able to project themselves as taking crime seriously. It was not simply that they claimed to take crime seriously though. They also had a simple formula for dealing with it.
The crux of this approach was greater respect for the authority of the state as embodied in the police. As most famously articulated by then Deputy Minister of Police Susan Shabangu, in her “Shoot the bastards” speech in April 2008,” Zuma and his allies believed that inappropriate restraints on the use of force undermined the ability of the police to obtain respect for authority.
The principle exponent of this agenda was not Susan Shabangu, but Nathi Mthethwa, appointed as Minister of Police in October 2008 after the September “palace coup” in which the ANC forced Thabo Mbeki to resign. Most notably in a briefing to Parliament’s select committee on security on 12 November 2008, Mthethwa focused on the issue of cash-in-transit heists, stating:
“We don’t believe that, when you are faced with criminals armed with sophisticated weaponry, the police’s task would be to take out some human rights charter. Because we are in the field, we are in the killing field, where criminals are killing law-abiding citizens. Now we are saying to the police that we ourselves have an obligation as well to strengthen the arm of these task forces. So that they are able, on the field, to teach those people a lesson – to fight fire with fire. There’s no other way on that.”
Mthethwa’s speech was about much more than cash-in-transit heists. In fact, Mthethwa was using cash-in-transit heists as a basis for defining the main platform for government’s entire anti-crime policy. This notwithstanding the fact that heists have never accounted for more than 0.5% of all robberies, 0.01% of all murders, and a much smaller fraction of all crimes.
In contrast to the prevarications of Thabo Mbeki, Mthethwa was saying, the new ANC leadership would act decisively against crime. And rather than doing so by better use of crime intelligence or investigation, they would do so by using superior fire-power to “teach” the perpetrators “a lesson”. Having no real strategy on how to address heists, or any other crime, Mthethwa was acting out a charade of acting authoritatively.
Exactly how the encouragement of the greater use of force impacted on police responses to cash-in-transits heists is not that clear. In fact the police confrontation with cash-in-transit robbers in which the largest number of fatalities occurred predates, by one week, Zuma’s election as ANC president on 18 December 2007 at the Polokwane conference. It also predates, by several months, Shabangu’s “Shoot the bastards” speech.
In a shoot-out with a cash-in-transit gang near Hammanskraal on 11 December 2007, 11 suspected robbers were killed.
Nevertheless, in 2009, the year of Zuma’s assumption of power as president, there was a steady stream of incidents in which SAPS units like the Special Task Force, the National Intervention Unit, and others were involved in shoot-outs with cash-in-transit gangs and other armed robbers. Among these were incidents near Hartebeespoort in February (four killed, and three injured), east of Pretoria in September (six killed) and in Polokwane in November (seven killed).
The “get tough” approach did not only have consequences for SAPS engagement with heavily armed gangs of robbers but also for civilians. In particular, two killings by police during this period – that of Olga Kekana (11 October 2009) and a three-year-old boy, Atlegang Phalane (7 November 2009) – brought this approach into considerable disrepute.
The new political elite also appeared to believe that more vigorous use of force would serve as a deterrent to the problem of violent protest. Rather than strengthening the capacity of public order units, paramilitary units were increasingly deployed to deal with such protest, and the use of lethal force in protest escalated. This played itself out in the killing of Andries Tatane in April 2011, and eventually at Marikana in August 2012.
It is difficult to avoid a conclusion that these policies were primarily the expression of a type of machismo that Zuma and some of his allies identified with. Nevertheless, Zuma and his allies were politically more astute than Mbeki in recognising the need to take crime, and cash-in-transit heists, seriously and to promote public confidence that this was being done.
Such heists are worthy of focused attention by government. While cash-in-transit heists make an insignificant contribution to overall crime levels the large amounts of money stolen in many of them means that they are “high value” crimes that also have serious economic consequences. They are also spectacular crimes and tend to enjoy a level of prominence in media coverage of crime. Insofar as gangs armed with automatic weapons, some of them with military training, appear to have free rein over the country, it sends a message that there is, ultimately, no government and no law.
Cash-in-transit heists are therefore worthy of being prioritised by government. But in calling for these crimes to be prioritised we should also be aware that we are reinforcing an already entrenched pattern in terms of which the crimes that have the most impact on the upper classes and the elite business sector are prioritised above those impacting on the poor.
It is important to focus on cash-in-transit heists but, though they share attributes with some other types of robberies, they are in many ways unique as a crime category. While all types of armed robberies are associated with fatalities, the robberies which make the biggest contribution to the murder rate are street robberies. We still await the day when the government will commit itself to addressing robbery comprehensively, rather than continuing to prioritise manifestations of the crimes that impact on the elite. DM
David Bruce is an independent researcher specialising in policing and criminal justice
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Watermelons were originally cultivated in Africa.