SA ‘awash’ with illegal arms

2015-06-13 09:19
Pietermaritzburg Public Order Policing unit commander Colonel Bhekisisa Hlongwane with assault rifles recovered from various criminals.

Pietermaritzburg Public Order Policing unit commander Colonel Bhekisisa Hlongwane with assault rifles recovered from various criminals. (Jonathan Burton)

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A NEW trend of hiring assault rifles through criminal syndicates is said to be one of the leading trendsfactors behind the spate of violent armed heists in KwaZulu-Natal recently.

With three violent heists in Pietermaritzburg since April, questions are surfacing as to how common criminals are getting their hands on high-powered rifles, like the AK47, with such ease.

The answer is simple — they are hiring them.

According to police sources and security bosses, there has been an increase in attacks in and around the city since last year, where criminals are outgunning officers by using military-grade AK47, R5 and R1 assault rifles.

Through their investigations, sources who cannot be named for fear of reprisal, say there is a growing trend of smaller criminal gangs hiring assault rifles from larger syndicates to conduct their crimes.

After interrogating various suspects who have been nabbed with these guns, sources say one can hire an AK47 or R5 on a daily, weekly or monthly basis.

“This makes it extremely difficult to trace suspects because once we find them, we cannot trace the weapon back to them as they have already returned it,” a source said.

Speaking to The Witness yesterday, former Institute of Security Studies (ISS) researcher and author Ettienne Hennop said one can easily purchase an AK47 for between R1 500 and R2 000.

However, smaller criminal gangs who cannot afford large sums of money, hire the assault rifle for amounts between R100 and R300 each, depending on the amount of ammunition they want.

Sources say smuggling routes used during apartheid to arm resistance groups are still a concern today.

According to Hennop, one of the problem areas for the smuggling of illegal firearms in the country is the international border between South Africa, Swaziland and Mozambique.

The 220 km borderline stretches from the Mpumalanga and KZN border with Swaziland and ends at Kosi Bay near the Mozambican border.

Prior to 1994, this border area was used extensively by the different liberation movements to supply arms to internal freedom fighters.

“Although the scale of smuggling weapons has diminished since 2004, these crossing areas still contribute to illegal firearms being brought into the country,” Hennop said.

“Between 2000 and 2004, AK47s were readily available at the Mozambican border. This, along with the exceedingly high amounts of smuggling before our democracy came about, caused a massive influx of illegal weapons into the country, making them easily available now.”

According to a security boss, one of the major hot-spots for hiring AK47s in KZN is Msinga, north of Pietermaritzburg.

“Due to the faction fighting, weapons become easily available. The guns are transported from Msinga to Greytown and then into Pietermaritzburg,” the security boss said.

KZN violence monitor Mary de Haas said gun smuggling was prominent in the 1980s.

“A huge consignment from Vlakplaas went missing in 1994.”

Six truckloads of military grade weapons, “enough to start a civil war”, went missing.

“Only two trucks were accounted for and many of the weapons [including AK47s] are still in circulation,” she said.

“This country is awash with weapons.”

Earlier this month, the Pietermaritzburg Public Order Policing unit (POP) and Msinga police arrested three men with five firearms and 49 live rounds of ammunition.

According to POP’s Colonel Bhekisisa Hlongwane, 128 high-powered firearms have been recovered in and around the city since January.

A source in the unit said that in the past three weeks, 37 firearms were recovered in the Greytown area, of which 25 were assault rifles.

Gunfree South Africa’s Claire Taylor said there are three sources of illegal weapons in the country:

• loss and theft from gun owners and police;

• fraud and corruption in the licensing system; and

• weapon smuggling across neighbouring borders.

Of the three, Taylor said smuggling is the least of their concerns.

“Our research shows that now neighbouring countries view South Africa as the source of illegal firearms. We are smuggling guns out of the country more than we are bringing them in. This just shows how polluted the country is in terms of illegal firearms,” Taylor said

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