Criminologist Mark Shaw has calculated that over a thousand murders can be traced to one decision: SAPS Colonel Christiaan Prinsloo’s decision to start stealing firearms in police custody and selling them on the black market. Around 9,000 guns were sold to some of the most dangerous people in the South African underworld – and the impact, says Shaw, cannot be overstated.
When Shaw first read about Prinsloo’s crime, via Daily Maverick reporting by Marianne Thamm, he “thought it was too far-fetched to be true that these guns came from the state”, Shaw told a Daily Maverick webinar on Thursday.
After extensive research and hundreds of interviews, however, Shaw confirmed not just that this was true, but that the effects were catastrophic. In his new book Give Us More Guns: How South Africa’s Gangs Were Armed, Shaw details the results of his study.
Gangs operate in a similar way all over the world, Shaw told his webinar audience. They evolve out of a “particular political economy” which usually involves the breaking up of communities; they require the recruitment of young men; and their central business is the drug trade. An important feature is the control of territory, for which guns are required. All of this was standard on the Cape Flats – but in 2007, something critical changed.
“From 2007, large consignments of guns arrived on the Cape Flats,” said Shaw.
The gangs had always had access to guns stolen during burglaries and other ad hoc crimes, but they were hard to come by and considered very precious. Suddenly, the Cape Flats was awash with firearms, and Shaw says these guns came from three major sources: Z88s used by cops, guns handed in by unsuspecting citizens, and guns from the SAPS armoury.
The man behind the new flood of guns: Colonel Chris Prinsloo, a frustrated cop who thought he should have reached the rank of Brigadier. Prinsloo was the SAPS resident gun expert, instrumental in encouraging civilians to hand in weapons during the firearm amnesty.
“It’s quite hard to understand [Prinsloo’s] actions, actually, because they appear to be unbelievably cynical,” Shaw said.
Looking around for a market for bulk guns, Prinsloo consciously resolved to target the Western Cape gangs – and the result has been an unprecedented bloodshedding on the Cape Flats, culminating in the army being called into these areas in 2019.
Thamm, the webinar host, pointed out that although the story fosters inescapable pessimism about SAPS, one ray of light is found in the fact that it was a fellow cop who realised what Prinsloo was up to and saw to it that he was arrested.
“A constable in Manenberg called Eksteen picks it up,” confirmed Shaw.
Eksteen found out about the bulk supply of state guns from an informant. Tellingly, he did not trust his own chain of command with the intel – taking it instead to top cop Jeremy Veary, who put out the word to start collecting guns. In this way, the guns were linked back to the SAPS armoury in Vereeniging, and to an intermediary who was supplying Prinsloo.
Prinsloo was sentenced to 20 years in jail in 2016, but was unexpectedly released on parole in 2020. He will reportedly serve as a State witness now, to assist investigators to understand where the weapons went.
“He owes it to South Africa,” Shaw said.
The criminologist stressed, however, that Prinsloo is only one element in a broken system. What needs to be “cleaned up together”, Shaw suggests, is the security industry, the private militia operating around the taxi industry, and the corrupt arming of people with criminal records.
“We are not having an American-style gun rights debate [in South Africa],” Shaw said.
“The Constitutional Court has ruled very clearly that gun ownership in this country is a privilege and not a right.”
Shaw’s book concludes with some recommendations for tackling the very serious problem of the circulation of illegal firearms. Among them, he proposes that the national firearms registry should be removed from the remit of the police and run by a civilian body instead.
“Guns are essential to organised crime, and guns are essential to creating criminal governance,” said Shaw.
“Controlling guns is key to reducing the homicide rate but also to controlling organised crime. No other policy approach will do as much good as reducing the flow of guns.” DM
Mark Shaw’s book Give Us More Guns: How South Africa’s Gangs Were Armed is available to buy from the Daily Maverick shop.