The daytime hustle and bustle of the market stalls and street vendors has faded, replaced now by an ominous presence that lurks in the shadows. A police siren screams out from somewhere in the distant night air, haphazard apartment lights blink on and off, meanwhile lonely shadows push rickety shopping trolleys along empty streets. A murky menace fogs the Johannesburg down-town night, enveloping every block, corner, nook and cranny of the metropolis’ heart. This is certainly not the marble floored richness of the Sandton City promenade that gushes luxury and wealth, no, this is down-town Jo’burg. A place where tourists and the uninitiated are unwelcome, a place of grit, grime and peril. Danger has set up stubborn residence here. Coiled and cosy, it has little intention of being evicted. And then, as if to confirm its constant presence, a gunshot rings out from the silence. This is the reality for millions of South Africans, not only in Johannesburg but in all of its urban centres.
As a South African living abroad I am often confronted by my country’s unfortunate notoriety for violent crime. Invariably, when I first make mention of my country of birth to strangers, people tend to either allude to Mandela’s Godliness or to South Africa’s violent crime rates - the later being the most likely. Indeed, the sad truth of the matter is that my homeland’s reputation for violence and crime often dominates its international persona. And whilst there are those who prefer to gloss over such negative accounts with stories of glorious reconciliation, for the vast majority of those living in South Africa, reconciliation remains a romantic fable. Instead it is violence that remains the unavoidable lidless malice that seeps into all facets of daily life, endlessly affecting the national mood.
South Africa is without doubt beset with profound socio economic problems, the consequence of which has been ever increasing high crime rates, of which a gun crime is an immediate feature. Judy Bassingthwaighte, national director of Gun-Free South Africa, notes how “we all know someone who’s been hijacked at gunpoint. Breadwinners are being killed, and gun violence is stealing precious resources from economic and social development”. And so it is that whilst the predominantly white residents of rich communities bunker down behind their fortified walls and purchase guns for predominantly recreational purposes, black communities are engaged in a life and death struggle against violent crime.
White people want more firearms for sport, and black people only want them gun for self-defense. [....] In our townships, it is not safe at all, especially for people who are taking early transport to work, when it's still dark and they're walking a long distance. A white man in Sandton [a predominantly white suburb] - he’s got an electric fence, high walls and a garage for his car (Abios Khoele, chairman of the Black Gun Owners Association of South Africa).
The proliferation of firearms straddles the racial divide, as both black and white communities partake and contribute to an increasingly pervasive gun culture. The sad economic consequence of which is that resources urgently needed to develop the country’s underfunded health and education sectors have been diverted towards addressing the crime epidemic. Furthermore, crime rates have had a negative impact on foreign investment, as investors have been increasingly dissuaded by the country’s negative reputation. This is indeed a bleak account of a country that not so long ago was the toast of nations as it navigated its way through reconciliation.
Despite boasting some of Africa’s most restrictive gun licensing laws, gun violence remains rampant throughout the country. Death as a result of shooting is the leading cause of death among 15 to 21 year old males in South Africa. Meanwhile, the United Nations Office of Gun Statistics estimates that over 10,000 people die every year as a result of gun related deaths - though given the difficulties in collating such statistics, this is no doubt an underestimate. Whilst reaching a consensus on exact figures remains difficult, what is clear is that South Africa suffers from a nationwide gun violence problem. And though statistics point to the extent of the problem, they do not offer an explanation nor provide any insight into the character of an ever-burgeoning gun culture.
South Africa’s gun problem can be traced back to the apartheid regime and the anti-apartheid movement that opposed it. Both sides ordered and stored massive stocks of arms in expectation of full out civil war. And whilst this never came to pass as a consequence of the negotiated settlement that culminated in the 1994 multi-racial elections, the stockpiles themselves were never destroyed. A recent report, commissioned by Oxfam and carried out by Gun-Free, documented how the political violence of the 1980s and early 1990s gave way to a growth in criminal violence after the 1994 all-race elections. There is a immediate correlation between the rise in violent crime in the immediate post apartheid era and the proliferation of firearms. The country is now awash with over 3.7 million legally registered firearms and an unknown - but by some estimates even larger - pool of illegal guns. According to recent reports, more than 100,000 people lost their lives in gun-related violence in the first 10 years of South Africa’s democratic transformation. In response to increasing crime rates, many people, especially white South Africans, responded by arming themselves. Meanwhile, the lack of police presence in townships and the difficulty and expense of acquiring a gun legally has seen more and more black people buying illegal guns and taking the law into their own hands. “People are sick and tired of crime, and they have no other way of dealing with the situation”, notes Abios Khoele of the Black Gun Owners’ Association of South Africa. Since the end of apartheid, South Africa has in effect - to use a popular post 9-11 colloquialism - been at war against guns. Every day, newspapers feature grisly accounts of armed car-jackings, bank robbers storming shopping malls with AK-47 assault rifles, and armed house burglaries. In a country which suffers from the tragic consequences of a rampant gun culture that is matched by huge socio-economic inequalities, the origins of firearms remains a critical question.
How we got here: the arms industry and historical tensions
South Africa boasts the largest and arguably most sophisticated arms industry on the African continent, and despite its decline in the aftermath of apartheid, it remains head and shoulders above those of other African countries. The end of apartheid in 1994 marked a turning point for South Africa’s defense industry. Heeding public sentiment, as many South Africans questioned whether it was worth supporting a huge military - which for decades had repressed national liberation movements at home and elsewhere in Africa - the Mandela-led government began drastically reducing its military budget. Government spending moved away from internal security and the military, and toward economic development and social policies. As a consequence, the arms industry downsized dramatically and total employment in the defense industry declined by over 55,000 between 1989 and 1996, including over 10,000 in the public sector defense industry. Defense industry employment as a percentage of manufacturing employment declined from over 8 percent in 1989 to 5 percent in 1996. Poignantly, in the past 5 years, the Zuma-led government has began reviving the arms industry.
Mandela’s policy decisions were heavily influenced by the militaristic character of the apartheid regime. Indeed, the links between the apartheid government and the socio-political regime it instituted and the South African arms industry have been well documented. “The South African defense industry was almost a direct and deliberate creation by the apartheid government, to create an almost self-sufficient yet technically sophisticated defense industry,” explains John Stupart, editor of the online African Defense Review. The application and maintenance of the apartheid regime necessitated a heavily militarized domestic police force, as well as a robust and sizable military force to defend South Africa’s national interests and perceived threats abroad - both real and imagined.
The collision between critical historical incidence, a burgeoning arms industry and contemporary economic strife that is characterized by gross inequality has created a fertile environment for an ever-emerging gun culture in South Africa. Liberated by institutional corruption, tardy and porous firearm regulations, both sides on the racially determined economic divide have found legitimacy in gun ownership. Whilst the predominantly white rich communities have developed a siege mentality - of which gun ownership is an integral feature - the predominantly black poor majority increasingly argue that they need more firearms to counter the armed criminal elements that threaten their communities. The extent to which South Africa’s gun problem blights its various communities has come to overshadow the splendor of its national reconciliation narrative - both nationally and intentionally. And herein I return to the initial lament of the situation, that is, without urgent and thorough attention, the emotional and political capital earned by our miraculous transition from an apartheid state to a multiracial democratic nation, risks being overshadowed (both nationally and internationally) by a virulent and violent gun epidemic.