ON THE BRINK
Multiple forms of organised crime are flourishing in SA, finds global crime index
The Global Institute of Transnational Organized Crime recently released its second iteration of the Organized Crime Index, a scale demonstrating the presence of organised crime and resilience to the phenomenon across all UN member states. The Index paints a bleak, but not irreversible picture of the penetration of organised crime in South Africa, with the country moving to the 7th worst-ranked in the world, from 19th in 2021.
To provide reliable data for the Organized Crime Index, the Global Institute of Transnational Organized Crime (GI-TOC) makes use of a model that aims to measure criminal activity through its scope, scale, value and impact.
Each country is provided two metrics; a Criminality score based on the prevalence and reach of criminal markets and the structure and influence of criminal actors, and a Resilience score, based upon the capacity and efficacy of a country’s ability to respond to organised crime.
Both of these are ranked out of 10, and this year, South Africa scored a high 7.18 for Criminality and a reduced 5.63 in Resilience.
Since the last Organized Crime Index release in 2021, South Africa has increased in Criminality and declined in Resilience, according to the GI-TOC, placing us squarely between Nigeria and Iraq.
Of note, however, is that our rate of decline is faster than both of these countries. In the context of the African continent itself – the southern African region is ranked the best in terms of the Index – South Africa is noted in the report as a salient outlier.
“What sets South Africa apart from most countries in Africa was that yes, South Africa has extremely high levels of violent crime, but it also had high levels of resilience to organised crime,” Julian Rademeyer, a director of GI-TOC, told Daily Maverick.
The strength and independence of the judiciary, the establishment of the Investigating Directorate and the strong role of civil society and non-government organisations are all highlighted by the report as critical elements in supporting SA’s resilience.
However, Rademeyer continues to note that this may not continue to be the case.
Our vulnerable season
“South Africa is at a particularly perilous time in its history,” he states.
“… [W]e made the case that South Africa is facing an existential threat to its people, to its democracy … from violent organised crime.”
Reporting by both GI-TOC and South Africa’s own crime statistics released by the SA Police Service support this conclusion.
The country is highlighted as a nexus of multiple forms of organised crime – from human trafficking and illicit trade in arms and wildlife to narcotics and cybercrime.
While the focus often lands squarely on human trafficking and narcotics, the report reveals a disturbing trend towards labour exploitation, particularly in agriculture, which now overshadows sex trafficking.
Moreover, extortion networks are not just thriving but evolving, morphing into seemingly legal entities like security companies, according to the report.
The issue of illegal firearms is another ticking time bomb, with millions in circulation originating from domestic sources.
Environmental crimes, such as illegal logging and wildlife poaching, also make a significant appearance in the report but are often overshadowed by more “newsworthy” crimes.
And let’s not forget the international connections in the drug trade, which make South Africa a critical node in global heroin smuggling rings.
Many salient social issues highlighted in the public space, such as cash-in-transit heists, illegal gold mining by zama zamas, and public unrest, such as the July unrest of 2021, are noted as being responded to with public gravitas by law enforcement, without what appears to be a coherent strategic purpose and willingness to detain and prosecute those behind such operations.
On Thursday, a highly publicised interception of cash-in-transit heist suspects in Johannesburg by police made headlines across the country, but there is little concrete data on the number of successful prosecutions, nor whether the ringleaders of such operations are also being arrested and jailed.
“We see in numerous briefings [by] the Minister [of Police] and various others talking about dozens of arrests… but they’re not getting to the people at the higher echelons of the criminal networks that are involved,” continues Rademeyer.
Lack of law enforcement leadership
The lack of leadership from within law enforcement, as well as from the political sphere, is one of the primary obstacles in the country’s fight against organised crime.
For example, the Special Investigating Unit motivated a Presidential Proclamation to enable their investigation into the murder of whistle-blower Babita Deokaran in December 2022. President Ramaphosa signed the proclamation only in August 2023, some nine months later. Deokaran was murdered in August of 2021, with the orchestrators of her killing still at large.
“This is a country where more is spent on VIP protection for politicians than for the DPCI (Directorate of Priority Crime Investigation)…” says Rademeyer, adding that this unit is “meant to lead complex organised crime cases – and I think that says everything about the current approach.”
“I think what the index flags is that, yes, we have been a country of high levels of organised crime, and yes, high resilience,” says Rademeyer, “but the cracks are appearing… And now we are at a juncture where we have a pretty simple and bleak choice to act.”
The centre continues to hold
Rademeyer is at pains to make clear that although the country faces a turning point, the judiciary, civil society and citizens themselves have made a clear contribution to protecting against the increased encroachment of organised crime – and, crucially, not for the first time.
History supports his position; South Africa achieved similar successes during the 1990s, and through bodies such as the Scorpions and targeted investigations by the National Prosecuting Authority was able to achieve notable successes both in the public and statistically, significantly combating organised crime within the country and internationally, with South Africa playing a key role in the drafting of the United Nations Convention on Transnational Organised Crime, approved in 2000.
“We tend to hear these statements of South Africa being a ‘mafia state’,” says Rademeyer.
“From my perspective, it’s a fairly meaningless concept as it can be applied to almost anything… If government and various others approach it in the right way, if it becomes an electoral issue, we can actually turn this around.” DM