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Friday activist: Gun Free SA director Adèle Kirsten on...

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Friday activist: Gun Free SA’s Adèle Kirsten on a mission to ban weapon licences for self-defence

Adèle Kirsten, a nonviolence activist and the director of Gun Free South Africa. (Photo: Jonathon Rees)

Despite the ordeal of staring down the barrel of a gun, Adèle Kirsten insists that keeping a firearm for self-defence is not the solution.

It was August 2002 when Adèle Kirsten, a nonviolence activist and the director of Gun Free South Africa, felt a gun pressed against her temple after three men hopped over a low wall outside her home in Yeoville, Johannesburg, gesturing with firearms that Kirsten and her sister should hand over their wedding rings.  

“It was that typical thing of being taken by surprise by three young men, two who were definitely armed,” recalls Kirsten. “We didn’t have anything on us. We didn’t have cellphones. And they started wanting both our wedding rings.  

“To me, it was very clear who was in charge. It was about staying calm and trying to actually connect to this person. Basically, I was imagining they are about as scared as I am. I said to the guy, ‘We don’t have anything here.’ And then, which was risky, my sense was they needed something, so I said, ‘I’ve got some money in the house.’ 

“There was a really interesting moment as we walked into the house … I looked at the panic button and he looked at me like, don’t even try. So there was this weird thing. There were times when he was in control. And there were times when I was in control. 

“I know it sounds strange, but I guess it was just about recognising his humanity. We were in the kitchen … My sister is a fighter and she started resisting the one guy. And I felt the tension rise. The main guy then put the gun to my temple.” 

The men left the women physically unharmed, making off with money but leaving their wedding rings. Kirsten filed a case with the police, but their assailants were not caught.  

“After that, we did put up a fence and an electronic gate. We’ve lived in this house for 33 years,” says Kirsten, speaking over Zoom from the Yeoville home which she shares with her husband, a sociologist who specialises in the study of violence. 

Despite this ordeal, Kirsten insists that keeping a handgun for self-defence is not a solution. She is lobbying for changes to existing South African firearm laws. One of the proposed changes – which she supports – is banning civilians from being able to apply for gun licences for self-defence. 

Last year, the Civilian Secretariat for Police (the “Civilian Secretariat”) published the controversial Firearms Control Amendment Bill, inviting public input. Kirsten says close to 120,000 public submissions were made opposing the bill – most of the opposition is for clause 15, which repeals the sections of the current act that allow civilians to apply for gun licences for self-defence. 

She explains: “The Civilian Secretariat is an independent oversight body over the police. But it’s also the policy arm of the police ministry. 

“So, basically what happened is when they reported to the portfolio committee [on police] in November about the process, the portfolio committee said, you need to consult more broadly. You need to consult with key stakeholders. So, for the last six months from January, until in fact today, they have instituted a range of what they’ve called bilaterals with key stakeholders, which has included trauma doctors from Groote Schuur, has included Naeemah Abrahams, who runs the gender unit at the MRC [Medical Research Council], has included Gun Free SA, the ISS [the Institute for Security Studies], the South African Policing Union … all the gun owners, you know, the dealers, private security, all that jazz.” 

Next, the legislation will be handed over to Parliament, where it will be published for more public deliberation. 

“We’ve heard fairly categorically that it’ll be pushed into 2023,” she says. “That’s a worry, because is there ever a good time to bring stricter gun laws? We think the sooner the better; what we will be doing in the next six months is lobbying for the bill to come to Parliament sooner rather than later.” 

Kirsten co-founded the non-government organisation Gun Free SA in 1995, on the back of the new democratic South Africa. At the time, hope for the country’s future was tinged with uncertainty and fear, with many South Africans reaching to handguns for “self-defence”. Gun Free SA advocates and educates to the contrary, essentially saying that having fewer guns circulating in a society will reduce gun violence in that society.  

While the world still reels from news of the May 24 school shooting in Uvalde, Texas, Kirsten points out that the number of gun killings in South Africa is staggering.  

“The majority of people who are being shot and killed in South Africa are young men between the ages of 15 and 29,” she says. “About 23 people are shot and killed every day. The young people we work with, for example in Western Cape communities like Atlantis, Mitchells Plain and Paarl East, they’re all very clear. They don’t want guns. They go to sleep hearing gunshots. They wake up hearing gunshots. They know friends who have been killed, they’re tired of it. 

“We have an opportunity to create a massive dent in that, essentially by banning handguns for self-defence. Why would you not want to do that? Not only would you reduce your gun deaths significantly, you would reduce your overall murder rates.” 

Kirsten argues that the fight for stricter gun control is the fight to prevent gun violence – because gun violence is preventable.

“Evidence should inform policy, not anecdotes or people’s fears. And the evidence is overwhelming that easy availability of guns results in an increase in deaths. Now, we have to be careful to compare oranges and apples. Often people will say, for example, we can’t look at the UK because we don’t have the same socioeconomic political histories. That is true. But the common theme across all countries, irrespective of these backgrounds is, when guns are easily available, you will see an increase in gun deaths.” 

Despite strong opposition from firearm lobbies, Gun Free SA played a key part in shaping South Africa’s Firearms Control Act of 2000, which called for more stringent gun control than its legislative predecessor from 1969. Under the act of 2000, the granting of a civilian firearm licence is conditional on a competency test, a background check and an inspection of an applicant’s premises. 

However, Kirsten says the majority of illegal firearms in South Africa were originally licensed to civilians and private security companies and ended up in the hands of criminals through loss and theft. 

Born to an English mother and Afrikaans father, a civil servant who worked in customs, Kirsten grew up in border towns including Komatipoort, East London and Mahikeng (formerly Mafikeng). Firearms never featured in her childhood.  

“I didn’t grow up around guns,” she says. “My father did own a handgun though, which I didn’t know about. I only discovered this fact when he was much older, in his eighties, and he was going into a retirement home and they wouldn’t allow him to take it in. I had the greatest pleasure of taking my father to the police station to help him voluntarily surrender his gun.” 

Kirsten matriculated at Lyttelton Manor High School in Centurion in 1975 and then studied speech therapy at the University of the Witwatersrand.  

“I was a first-year student at university in 1976 when June 16 [the Soweto uprising] happened. That changed my life. It woke me up to what was going on in the country.” 

Kirsten was a founding member of the End Conscription Campaign – which supported young white men who did not want to serve in the apartheid military – and a coordinator for the anti-apartheid organisation the Five Freedoms Forum. 

“From my early days of activism, I’ve taken a position of nonviolence,” she says. “So the Gandhian method of nonviolent direct action.” 

Yoga has kept her focused. “Yoga is a discipline of practice, as activism is a discipline of practice. It’s highly focused and keeps me organised. I like to think I’m one of the most organised people on the planet,” she says.  

Kirsten excuses herself from the interview, as she has a meeting scheduled with the Civilian Secretariat. DM

 

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  • Responsible gun ownership is in my opinion not the issue. It is the illegal gun ownership in this country that is the issue and I fully support a program to get rid of illegal firearms. If we can have a gun free society somewhere in the future where most of our societal problems have been solved. But for now I do not want my family to be at the mercy of people that are also victims of our dysfunctional society. If I never have to use my firearm for self defence I will call it a successful ownership. I do not wish to ever use it for self defence, just like how I wish to never be the victim of a violent crime. If South Africa is at the stage where the majority of its citizens are not exposed to violent crimes somewhere in their life times, then I believe we can reduce the means to protect ourselves within reason. But until then, even if I also do not like firearms, I am a supporter of responsible firearm ownership.

  • I have the highest admiration for Adele’s commitment to a safer, caring and gun free society. If the USA had strong activism, such as this, hundreds of school children would be alive today! Let that sink in!

  • “But the common theme across all countries … when guns are easily available, you will see an increase in gun deaths.”
    This is patently untrue. Canada has many guns per capita and a robust gun culture. It also has nowhere near the amount of gang related crime nor any monthly school shootings like the US. Even the US a few decades back had just as many guns but no school shootings. Does Adèle Kirsten have an answer to that?

    It’s not the guns; it’s the culture.

    When these young men between the ages of 15 and 29 go to sleep hearing gunshots, do they just not care that the gunshots are invariably from illegal guns? And yet Gun Free SA is on a blind crusade to disarm only legal gun owners. Criminals are obviously one of the key stakeholders here too – does Gun Free SA consult with them too? I suspect not…

    Zero mention of Christiaan Prinsloo, the former police colonel who sold police guns to gang members. Great work there, Adèle Kirsten. How much consultation of key stakeholders did Gun Free SA do with this case, I wonder…

    No, it seems very clear to me that Adèle Kirsten and Gun Free SA are there to serve to distract the population with laughable logic and cherry-picked ‘evidence’. Not only are they not the solution, but they are part of the problem by flagrantly ignoring the real reason it is so easy to acquire guns in SA. They are inadvertently making the the country MORE violent with this clown show.

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