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Silence is the biggest challenge in understanding kidnapping in South Africa (Part two)

Silence is the biggest challenge in understanding kidnapping in South Africa (Part two)

Commissioned by the Henry Nxumalo Foundation, researchers have been investigating the extent of kidnapping in South Africa and how silence obfuscates the depth and nature of the crime for victims, law enforcement, and the general public.

This is the second article in this series, building on “The Confusion About Kidnapping: The numbers just don’t add up”.

Between silence and trauma

According to a retired South African Police Services (SAPS) official, “the biggest challenge” in understanding kidnapping is “silence”. The perpetrators tell the families of kidnapping victims not to talk to the police, and the families believe their communications could threaten their loved ones.

Sometimes victims will not be released until they provide the names of other potential kidnapping targets to the perpetrators. This adds layers of meaning to silence. To be silent can place oneself in peril. Once released, victims may silence themselves for fear of being re-kidnapped, or human trafficked and for feeling shame for having named others.

The trauma experienced by kidnapping victims and their families complicates whether they will come forward and with whom, and especially whether they speak with SAPS investigators. The retired SAPS official shared that the victim’s statement is “the best evidence of everything” in identifying the criminals. Their cooperation (or lack of it) can help or hamper the National Prosecuting Authority’s case.

According to unpublished research by the Global Initiative Against Transnational Organized Crime (GI-TOC), members of the Johannesburg LGBTIA+ community have been kidnapped through the app Grinder. One activist in the community believed that over 50 other members of the community had been kidnapped going back to 2017. Possibly due to feelings of shame, most of these victims have not reported the incidents to SAPS.

Glimpses of success

While conducting our research, we learned about religious and inter-faith communities, who asked to be anonymous, coming together to help spread the word when a person is kidnapped. Religious and community leaders are sometimes the first responders and negotiators in kidnapping cases because the families tend to trust them, and the families have been instructed not to speak to SAPS.

Sometimes these leaders learn of the victim’s location and help the families to secure the rescue and return of a family member. They have done this both with SAPS’ cooperation and without it. These interfaith groups work together to help reunite kidnapping victims with their families and facilitate the healing process.

Given the delicate negotiations that are involved and the sensitivity of the cases, people often prefer not to report their experiences to SAPS. Therefore, it follows from successful rescue operations that silence becomes more important, enabling future exchanges with kidnappers and their victims.

SAPS’ silence

The degree to which SAPS is involved in these efforts to secure the safe return of kidnapping victims, and how victims are released by a rescue operation, paying a ransom, or through an escape, cannot be fully disclosed to the public. Many times, kidnappers demand the police stay out of the ransom negotiations and release of a victim. Afterwards, families are not willing to discuss how they did or did not engage SAPS in the return of a loved one.

In March 2023, Rana Pretorius was kidnapped in Gqeberha and returned safely. Her family “has been silent about her ordeal ever since returning home”. This silencing of victims’ families creates opacity around how the person was rescued, by whom (with SAPS or not), and whether the crime is being prosecuted. No one seems to know what is really going on.

Who to trust?

Compounding SAPS’ silence at the case level, the kidnapping cases reported by SAPS are not annually disaggregated for the public to understand.

Rather, SAPS annual numbers provide an umbrella “kidnapping” number that obscures and under-reports the actual number of kidnappings for ransom and extortion which is estimated to be less than 5% of the total kidnapping cases.

According to a private investigator, kidnappings are believed to be of higher incidence than what is reported because of distrust and fear of SAPS. Victims’ families frequently do not trust the police because they are alleged to be working with local gangs. These local gangs, in turn, are alleged to collaborate with transnational crime syndicates, who are deemed “ghosts” unable to be officially linked to kidnapping cases. Any transgression of kidnappers’ instructions in regard to silence causes fear.

Adding to the victim’s silence is the gang culture of not telling on someone. During apartheid, law enforcement was seen as an enemy, and police informants or collaborators were called “impimpi”. And those identified as impimpis in the community could be burnt to death by tyre necklacing.

The taboo of being a police informer continues in many communities today. Among narco traffickers in Mexico, for example, the term commonly used for a snitch is soplón or soplóna (for a female), and the consequences for working with authorities are disembowelment and hanging of a nude body in a public space.

If someone within a gang structure wishes to snitch, be an informant, or leave the gang life, the person fears that the law enforcement official that he/she/they connect with could in fact be working for the very gang from which the person hopes to escape, according to a former gang member.

The prevalence of gangs in South Africa paralyses law enforcement efforts in getting information about victims, rescuing victims, and ultimately prosecuting the criminals involved in kidnappings.

‘Pay, don’t say’

The value of silencing is particularly accentuated among the wealthier and often foreign kidnapped victims. Humanitarian aid organisations use private security companies that promote a “pay, don’t say” policy to respond to kidnapping cases. Managing kidnapping cases requires the control of information shared with the public as well as the information shared within the investigative team.

For high-profile individuals, the approach is to “use business transactions to resolve abductions…. practice strict confidentiality concerning the case’s management and outcome and consistently deny any transaction in public”.

When high-profile individuals are kidnapped, speculation often follows that those who work in the banking and insurance industries have leaked the personal information of these high-profile individuals for profit, making the victims vulnerable targets.

According to iTOO Special Risks, a South African speciality insurance company, “kidnapping and ransom has grown dramatically”, and the company has seen “over a 20% [increase] per year over the past two years”.

When asked about what a kidnapping policy covers, it was noted that policies are confidential and that they cover ransom, hijacking, express kidnapping, stalking and threat, detention, disappearance as well as other events.

In an earlier investigation, an insurance industry executive indicated that victims’ families do not want to report kidnappings to the SAPS because “there’s a general mistrust in South Africa about the ability of the police to handle a complaint and such a complex situation”.

There also appears to be a lack of capacity for SAPS and its three anti-kidnapping task teams to handle the kidnapping caseload. This has led victims’ families to turn to private investigators, insurance companies, and community leaders for help.

Modus operandi

The modus operandi of kidnappers is to approach an employee of a high-profile family to gather information. SAPS officials and community leaders shared with us that often in a shebeen, a disgruntled employee will drink and speak loudly about her/his/their employer’s wealth. A gang member then recruits this employee.

By the time a transnational crime syndicate kidnaps its victim, it will know the type of medicine the victim takes, type of cigarette he/she/they smoke, the day of food deliveries, and which driving routes the person takes to school and/or work.

The transnational crime syndicate(s) then takes the victim, makes contact with victims’ families, and negotiates prices, the drop-off point and the exchange of money. With this level of information, victims’ families become frozen with fear which can leave victims traumatised for months and years.

In one case, according to a community leader, a kidnapping victim was drugged and when he woke up, there was a naked woman next to him and the criminals were taking pictures presumably to blackmail him in the future. The community leader explained that the kidnappers “play mind games with the victim and the families”.

The silencing of victims, victims’ families, and others needs to be acknowledged when analysing kidnapping and the annual criminal statistics reported by SAPS. The SAPS numbers underreport kidnappings because of this fear of coming forward, and the criminals’ threats and in-depth knowledge about its victims and the victims’ families.

SAPS cannot always disclose the details of a successful kidnapping rescue and operation because then the criminals will — like machine learning — learn of the success and work around it.

The silencing, unfortunately, cripples the public’s knowledge of kidnapping. There is an opportunity, however, for SAPS and the three South African kidnapping task teams to break the silence and disclose the outcomes of victims.

They can give a voice to real-time kidnappings through public announcements, provide anti-kidnapping training to schools and families about permissions in picking up children, create an anonymous hotline for kidnapping leads, and meaningfully support their internal teams and religious and community outreach efforts.

For the victims, the silence ensures safety, but it also stymies the communications necessary for public safety. DM

Research for this article was funded by the Henry Nxumalo Foundation. The authors would like to thank Vincent Cruywagen, investigative journalist at Daily Maverick, for his assistance.

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.


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