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Arms and the man: Bheki Cele’s disarming rhetoric


Jonathan Deal is the founder and national coordinator of Safe Citizen and an SAPS-licensed firearms instructor.

Apparently Police Minister Bheki Cele appreciates the need for a police officer to defend him or herself or others, but does not recognise the need or the right of the ordinary citizen to enjoy the same opportunity.

Gun Free South Africa (GFSA), which pushes an agenda of disarming lawful civilians, is dramatically out of touch with the reality in South African homes and streets. The organisation hosts an interactive map on their website facilitating a user-search of gun-related incidents by inter alia, location and date but there is no facility to record incidents in which a firearm was successfully used to prevent a life-threatening criminal attack. Aeroplane crashes get news coverage. Successful take-offs and landings do not.

GFSA was formed in 1995 “with the aim of making a material contribution to the safety and security of South Africa by reducing gun-related violence”. No reasonable and law-abiding citizen could stand in opposition to such a statement.

To support their position, GFSA shrewdly plays on select crime statistics. The significant numbers of firearms lost by police, military and metros and the volumes of military firearms from pre-1994 ANC arms caches are steadfastly ignored by the organisation. A more realistic motion (on the face of it) from GFSA would be that every gun in the country is destroyed. None for the police, security and armed response, SANDF, and none for Minister Cele and President Ramaphosa’s armed protection teams.

GFSA may respond “well of course the President needs to be protected, and of course the police need guns to use when facing a deadly attack”. What about the lawful private citizen? Does he/she enjoy less right to life than the president? Does he/she not also have a right to effective self-defence? How must a private person effectively defend themselves against a violent criminal? Is it an option to simply hope that one will not be selected? Or that the attacker will be satisfied with a cell phone and cash? Is this a standard for the families of those that support GFSA? Do they make use of armed response?

Intriguingly, although GFSA makes much of its role in driving an anti-gun message, the organisation was silent about a well-known arms cache at Luthuli House. The Independent reported in 1999 that: “The credibility of the ANC in the fight against crime is in question after the news that the party owns some 300 guns and that its weapons have been used in at least three violent attacks. The ANC… refused to comment yesterday on how it squared its manifesto call for tougher gun control with the existence of a party arsenal.”

In 2017, Chief Mangosuthu Buthelezi called for the ANC and IFP to disclose the locations of arms caches “if the killing is to stop”. Referring to caches in the region pre-1994, Chief Buthelezi is reported as having said that “it is true that the violence [of today] comes from those arms”.

A Wikipedia entry on the travel company Africa Hinterland yields a fascinating look into arms caches brought into South Africa by the ANC even after Nelson Mandela’s release.

“A closely guarded secret within the ranks of the ANC until 2001, is the fact that the Africa Hinterland (an overland travel company set up in the UK in the early 1980s to smuggle arms into South Africa for the military struggle against the apartheid system) operation continued to operate after Nelson Mandela‘s release in February 1990, and for three years after his speech in August 1990 when he announced the cessation of the movement of men and arms into South Africa. It would have been under Mandela’s command that the Africa Hinterland operation was ordered to continue and relocate in 1990 from the United Kingdom to South Africa.

“Many of the weapons were used as part of the ANC military campaign against the apartheid regime, but significant caches were dug up and handed over to the new government in 1995.”

Ignoring the volume of fully automatic weapons still in ANC hands, GFSA took aim at lawful civilian gun owners. By now the perception, (guns are evil) was carefully incubated in the minds of “the new government”.

GFSA must concede that not a single gun surrendered in any amnesty has been linked by the SAPS to a crime. Does anyone expect a criminal to surrender a firearm used in a murder? The unmistakable objective of GFSA was and is to keep private gun ownership on the South African political agenda as the source of illegal firearms (and by implication the murder of people). The organisation ignores the primary and ongoing source of the absolute majority of unlicensed firearms.

Of the three amnesties – 1994, 2004 and 2010 – the third netted 32,169 firearms of which 2,400 were stolen from the SAPS’ stores by then police colonel Chris Prinsloo and sold to known gangsters on the Cape Flats and in Nelson Mandela Metropole. These guns have been used to murder more than 1,000 people – a direct link between guns handed in by law-abiding citizens and the deaths of at least 1,000 people. GFSA is silent on this point.

The latest amnesty – as with the last three – is ostensibly to retrieve unwanted and illegal firearms and ammunition from members of the public. The elephant in the room is that the amnesty is touted by the minister as a so-called opportunity for members of the public with lawful guns to make use of the amnesty to relicense those firearms.

It is well known that there are more than 430,000 lawful firearm owners with expired licences. This amnesty, (actually 118 working days) thus required that 3,661 firearms be handed in and processed by SAPS every single day before the end of the amnesty.

Every gun will be tested for ballistics. Even the basic test involves significant administration and technical work. More than 400,000 firearms processed by the already stretched SAPS, is tens of years of work.

Given the SAPS Central Firearm Register (CFR) administration woes, and the de facto refusal of the SAPS to engage with the representatives of lawful gun owners, there is justifiable scepticism that the minister has any intention of relicensing firearms handed in for the purpose of relicensing.

The Minister recently reported that 2,266 guns had been received. Simple math on the day is that 432,000 – 2,266 = 429,734 divided by 90 (days remaining on January 14), increased to 4,774 firearms per day that need to be processed. Counting every working day that has passed since then, should every holder of an expired licence wish to use the amnesty, it would be closer to double that number. Per day.

These sums (which reliably predict the failure of the amnesty) were well apparent to SAPS and it is clear that the amnesty process itself is a method where gun owners with expired licences can be compelled to hand in their firearms – thus disarming 400,000 people – effectively the administrative criminalisation of South Africans at the stroke of midnight on 31 May.

These gun owners have been lawfully licensed at some point in the past. As with the concept that a motorist who for some reason fails to renew a driver’s licence timeously is not punished by the confiscation of the car, gun owners should be able to pay an administrative penalty and retain their property. The minister’s amnesty will deprive gun owners of their means to self-defence for years.

Imagine if on 1 June, SAPS decides to make examples of gun owners, arresting them and confiscating their guns. The certain panic will inundate SAPS stations with abandoned firearms and ammunition, the scale of which would be unmanageable.

Ammunition dumped at SAPS would equate to around 64 million rounds. Minister Cele confirmed that SAPS have “lost” more than 9.5 million rounds of ammunition over six years. In 2019 the Minister reported SAPS lost 4,357 firearms over six years – or two guns a day. And in July 2019 News24 reported that 739 firearms were missing in Ekurhuleni Metro. Recently, the theft of 19 fully-automatic military rifles from an SANDF base appeared to be off the minister’s radar. The theft of these guns, stolen by criminal syndicates for use in violent robberies did not interrupt the relentless focus on private gun owners by GFSA and the minister.

It is the aim of the government to disarm every single private person and the target is the lawful gun owner. Firstly, the minister is clear that in his view no private citizen should own a gun. Secondly, the minister knows full well that not every gun owner can be logistically processed in the amnesty period, and third, he is on record as stating that once the grace period has ended, the police will show no mercy to those who have not taken advantage of the amnesty.

He is oblivious to the possibility that if the amnesty period and arrangements deny even one gun owner the opportunity to surrender a gun, it may render the amnesty legally defective – paving the way for a class action against the state. In a conflicting statement (about self-defence) to police officers on 17 December 2019, Minister Cele said “criminals must have sleepless nights”, adding that “they [the police officers] can’t co-govern with criminals”. He told assembled police officers: “The Criminal Procedures Act says if the life of an ordinary innocent [person] is under attack, you must use your tools… And you [the police officers] are also human beings, you have [the] rights to defend yourself. The law further says you have a right to use deadly force…”

Apparently Minister Cele appreciates the need for a police officer to defend him or herself or others, but does not recognise the need or the right of the ordinary citizen to enjoy the same opportunity. A final note in this context is the minister’s statement of September 2018 to parliament that “South Africans are living in a war zone, but we are not at war” – this in response to the statistic of 57 murders a day.

The debate over who is armed in a populace is not a new one. Even Aristotle held that the monopolisation of arms-bearing in the hands of one class (think SAPS and SANDF) to be objectionable. Aristotle, commenting on the plans of Hippodamus to divide the population into three parts – one of skilled workers, one of agriculturalists and a third to bear arms and secure defence – believed that restricting arms to a given class only would lead to oppression by that class and that such a model would breed inequality and discontent. Indeed.

“The farmers would have no arms, the workers would have neither land nor arms; this makes them virtually the servants of those who do possess arms.”

In review, we have a spiralling crime situation, a politically inspired perception that guns are evil, a historically defective licensing function, a completely unworkable amnesty and a government resolution to disarm all citizens. The consequences (short, medium and long-term) of this state of affairs, require a critical review of the hackneyed but effective refrain of GFSA, and a tempering of the anti-gun rhetoric that has blossomed from Minister Cele since 2018. DM


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