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The confusion about kidnapping in South Africa — the numbers just don’t add up

The confusion about kidnapping in South Africa — the numbers just don’t add up
The authors argue that the South African public needs to think about kidnapping as “a business” in which a perpetrator is looking to make money. (Photo: iStock)

Commissioned by the Henry Nxumalo Foundation, researchers have been investigating the extent of kidnapping in South Africa and the confusion surrounding the numbers, the perpetrators, the victims, and the role of the South African Police Services.

How many kidnappings occur in South Africa each year? How many should cause alarm for the public? South Africa ranks #7 worldwide in the number of kidnappings, with 9,569 annually in 2017.

The South African Police Service (SAPS) reported 10,826 kidnapping cases between April 2021 through March 2022, and claims a 79.4% increase from 2021 to 2022.

Gauteng had the largest number of kidnapping cases with 4,495 from 2021 to 2022, up 149% from the previous year. KwaZulu-Natal had 2,520 kidnapping cases from 2021 to 2022, up nearly 84% from 2020 to 2021. And the Western Cape reported 1,028 kidnappings, increasing nearly 22% in a year.

These SAPS annual numbers combine discrete criminal acts, yet quarterly data do provide causative factors. The annual numbers are not further broken down to explain the types of kidnapping cases such as a parent taking a child in a custody matter, an individual forced to withdraw money at an ATM, kidnapping for ransom, and politically motivated kidnappings.

Furthermore, the numbers alone do not reflect a statistically adjusted measure that accounts for the increasing South African population.

According to those interviewed for this article, there is a type of kidnapping that is planned and performed in order to extract a large ransom from a high-profile, wealthy individual. Some of the wealthy people targeted are involved in illicit activities, and kidnappings may be retaliation for sour business deals or unpaid debts. Also, criminal gangs seeking to profit have seen other gangs successfully carry out a kidnapping and profit handsomely.

Lucrative motivation

Politically motivated kidnappings are comparatively rare; rather, the perpetrators mostly seek large sums of money for seemingly low-risk operations.

The public needs to think about kidnapping as “a business” in which a perpetrator is looking to make money, according to former US Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) investigator and negotiator formerly based in South Africa, Anthony Gonzalez.

If kidnapping is easy and offers a high profit with low risk, then the business model works. But if perpetrators fear getting caught, the business model is no longer viable.

In South Africa, despite the best intentions of many SAPS officials, the 180,000-strong body has only three kidnapping task forces (Gauteng, KwaZulu-Natal and Western Cape) dedicated to a population of more than 60 million people.

One community leader, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, explained that in the business of kidnappings professional syndicates are more transactional, ensuring that the negotiation goes smoothly and that the victim is not overly traumatised.

“Copycat gangs”, on the other hand, tend to be violent, coerce the family, and make victims suffer with pain. Some suggest that kidnapping is a graduation for street criminals and that armed robberies, in particular, drive the escalation in kidnappings.

Who is at risk?

But how many individuals are in danger of being kidnapped? Risk is determined by an individual’s location, community or nationality, vulnerability, and type of employment or business. A self-defence business owner located in Cape Town said he believes “everyone is a target”, and that kidnapping is catching on, targeting middle-class and upper-middle-class individuals. Since “no one is coming to help,” everyone needs to know how to protect herself/himself/themselves.

As a community leader in Khayelitsha shared, there are three levels of criminality in Khayelitsha, as in other townships, that account for local patterns in kidnappings: 1) the skollies or “amapharaphara”, who target early morning workers for quick money or to buy drugs; 2) the “amagintsa”, who provide protection for kingpins, conduct heists, and hijack cars; and 3) the kingpins/thugs/bosses, who often live outside the community but exercise tight control.

There are also kidnappings of minors, children under 12 years old, for witchcraft or “amagqirha”. The leader also mentioned that albinos are being targeted. Children between 14 and 16 years old are pursued for human and sex trafficking.

Reportedly, the Pakistani, Bangladeshi, Somali, and Ethiopian communities are disproportionately represented among kidnapping victims, with authorities noting that kidnappings are frequently intra-community. It can be difficult to prosecute when the same nationals kidnap each other because they do not report and/or settle the situation internally.

Members of the Khayelitsha community frequently “don’t always know what’s going on”, or are bribed to look the other way. A retired SAPS official corroborated this, indicating that people in townships are employed “to look after a guy” (meaning a victim), yet they have no idea who the victim is whom they are watching. Others have alleged that “kidnapping holding cells” have been built inside homes in Khayelitsha.

Among various foreign groups, some of the members do not have papers and are in South Africa through labour human trafficking. Within these communities, if someone steps outside of the established community’s norms, then the person is likely to be robbed, kidnapped or killed, according to the retired SAPS official. These cases are grossly underreported out of fear.

This fear is further perpetuated by how “coloured gangs prefer extortion and intimidation instead of kidnapping” and keep communities on edge, according to a community leader.

A high-profile person in business, or a foreign employee are often targets for ransom kidnappings. According to private investigator Kyle Condon, the first step in responding to a kidnapping is “ascertaining the validity of whether it is a kidnapping case or not”. He described the ransom as a “payment for life”. Condon estimated that his company handled 10 kidnapping cases per year and that he is aware of 18-20 similar businesses.

Read more in Daily Maverick: Rich pickings: How South Africa’s wealthy became a booming business for kidnapping syndicates

According to an informal calculation, private investigators in South Africa manage approximately 200 kidnappings for ransom cases per year. It is unclear whether the families of kidnapping victims report to the authorities about these incidents.

Condon also mentioned that transnational crime syndicates that target high-profile individuals, meticulously plan their operations and find a way to receive funds from outside the country. They look for people who have overseas accounts and who can make payments in Dubai. According to the retired SAPS officer, these transnational crime syndicates “know how much you are worth and how much you can pay”.

One active SAPS officer noted that once families have a family member returned, “they want the case dropped and for the police to leave them alone”. Typically, the family still feels under threat by whoever took the initial victim as the criminals will retain all the victim’s family’s sensitive information.

Complex web

Kidnappers have begun in Cape Town and are moving to Gqeberha under the influence of Mozambican syndicates. The perceived success of transnational crime syndicates with kidnappings in Gauteng and KwaZulu-Natal has bolstered this criminal activity.

When asked why kidnapping occurs, many of those interviewed for this article as well as Condon stated that it was because South Africa has “failed to curb crime” and thus it is the next stage in the evolution of high-return, low-risk criminal activity.

So, how then to properly calculate kidnappings? The real scope of this crime is unknown because of what goes unreported, and victims’ apprehension about and distrust of police involvement. The fear of the SAPS stems from both the perception and fact that some police are complicit with criminals. In addition, some victims are undocumented and want to evade authorities.

SAPS’ crime analysis and intelligence gathering

To better understand and prevent kidnapping, SAPS must consistently collect data on the various kinds of kidnappings and the circumstances surrounding the crime. This type of information can often be compiled in SAPS dockets which are then used by the National Prosecuting Authority (NPA). As an NPA attorney lamented, if SAPS does not correctly prepare these dockets, the criminals cannot be prosecuted and justice for the kidnapping victims remains elusive.

According to the SAPS National Crime Registrar, “the disaggregation of kidnappings are done quarterly on a sample basis” and reflects the number of victims (not the number of cases). SAPS annual crime statistics, however, do not disaggregate kidnapping data as it “would require this office [the National Crime Registrar] to individually peruse all registered cases to establish these levels of disaggregation… Hence, there is a high likelihood of a number of reported cases to have had many kidnapping victims.”

The opportunity for SAPS to be able to provide an annual number of kidnapping cases by causative factors would enable South Africans and the NPA to more fully understand the prevalence of kidnapping and then to engage in proactive preventive kidnapping measures and prosecute criminals.

Kidnapping is a type of criminal behaviour that escalates if not combatted. And the former FBI agent concluded that he would not regard South Africa as facing a “kidnapping problem per se; rather, there is a crime problem that no one knows what is really going on”.

City of Cape Town law enforcement also implied that SAPS has limited capacity, training and resources to tackle this crime alone. Kidnapping numbers will continue to cause confusion in South Africa with numbers not adding up for many reasons, including the victims’ fear of reporting and the ubiquity of the transnational crime syndicates. DM

Research for this article was funded by the Henry Nxumalo Foundation.

Theresa Alfaro-Velcamp is Managing Principal at AM Research, LLC. She is Emeritus Professor, Sonoma State University. Matthew Skade is a Creative Research Director with expertise on safety governance, public safety, social enterprise, public transport, and migration. The authors previously collaborated on Getting ‘Angry with Honest People’: The Illicit Economy in Immigrant Documents in Cape Town(2017) with Oxford University.


Comments - Please in order to comment.

  • jcdville stormers says:

    The goverment is to blame, no planning, no training,because the biggest thieves are the government themselves

Please peer review 3 community comments before your comment can be posted


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