Sitting ducks in the car

2019-07-29 12:57
A suspected smash-and-grab thug was beaten by angry community members after he broke a window of a vehicle and snatched a bag in Joubert Park. Photo by David Selepe

A suspected smash-and-grab thug was beaten by angry community members after he broke a window of a vehicle and snatched a bag in Joubert Park. Photo by David Selepe

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Driving alone will never be the same for Pietermaritzburg teacher Tremaine James, who was a victim of a smash-and-grab incident and attempted hijacking in the city recently.

James (28) said that after stopping at a traffic light on Jabu Ndlovu Street at about 10 am, he was accosted by three men who pointed a gun at him.

“I had just left the car wash on Jabu Ndlovu Street and my doors were obviously unlocked,” he said.

One of the perpetrators opened the driver’s door and pulled out a gun, demanding James’ cellphone and money.

“I was so shaken up. I didn’t have any cash on me, so I just gave him my cellphone. Two other men who had knives opened the front passenger door and ruffled through everything and then pushed me out the car and started the car,” he said.

James said the three men got into the car and tried to start it, but a taxi driver, who had witnessed what was happening, pulled up in front of James’ car so the three men couldn’t drive off. The men then got out and ran down the road making off with James’ cellphone.

“Normally I lock the doors, but I had just left the car wash and was still sorting myself out. When I pulled up at the traffic light, they just came out of nowhere.

“It was so traumatic. I didn’t think that something like that could happen in the middle of the morning. I’m the most optimistic person in the whole world but when something like this happens, you just get shocked.”

120716w Beeld Nuus A motorist sustained three stab

While Pietermaritzburg police spokesperson Sergeant Mthokozisi Ngobese told The Witness this week that theft out of vehicles, or smash-and-grabs, are not on the increase, James said his incident is proof that more police visibility is needed at some intersections in the CBD.

James’ ordeal is part of an ever-growing number of accounts that have been reported, with more motorists calling for police to increase visibility at intersections that have been identified as hot spots.

This week, The Witness reported that Lincoln Meade resident Sally Beattie was rescued by taxi drivers during a smash-and-grab incident.

The incident happened at the intersection of Langalibalele and Boshoff streets last Friday.

Beattie said she had been on her way to the Department of Labour offices in Langalibalele Street with a friend, who was driving, when an armed man opened the front passenger door and tried to steal her cellphone and handbag.

 In another incident, earlier this year, Yurika Gopee from Howick was ambushed by three men when she stopped at a red traffic light on the N3 off-ramp onto Dr Chota Motala Road.

She said three men smashed the passenger front window and one of them tried to grab her handbag, which was on the car seat, and ran off.

Gopee said the ordeal lasted just a few seconds and that it was during the day and at peak traffic.

According to the 2017/2018 crime statistics, a total of 1 229 cases of theft out of vehicles were recorded at four Pietermaritzburg police stations. 

Alexandra Road Police Station recorded 128 cases, down from 160 in the previous financial year, while Mountain Rise Police Station reported 233 cases in 2017/18, down from 295 in 2016/17.

The Pietermaritzburg Central Police Station recorded 599 cases in 2017/18, up from 478 in the previous financial year, while Plessislaer Police Station also saw an increase of 204 cases in 2016/17 to 269 cases in 2017/18.


According to Msunduzi Municipality’s Safe City, some of the attack hotspots in Pietermaritzburg include Pietermaritz Street between Retief and Boshoff streets near the Imbali taxi rank; the intersection of Boshoff and Church streets and at the traffic lights around Hoosen Haffejee Street.

Safe City’s Lucas Holtzhausen told Weekend Witness that criminals can work either in a group or as lone operators.

He said the modus operandi is that criminals target motorists whose windows are open or doors are unlocked, and reach into the vehicle to grab cellphones and other valuables within reach.

“We have noticed that most victims’ windows are open, and their car doors unlocked. Drivers talking on their cellphones are mostly targeted as they are distracted and not paying attention to their surroundings,” he said.

Holtzhausen said motorists should ensure valuables are not visible to potential criminals.

“Put your laptop, handbag or briefcase in the boot or under the seat.

“If they see nothing in your car, you will not become a target,” said Holtzhausen.

He said motorists should also be cautious about talking on their cellphones when parked at traffic lights.

“You would be amazed at the number of people who talk on their cellphones, with the car window open. It’s an invitation to criminals. They don’t even have to smash, they can just grab and run away!” he said.

“They [motorists] must always ensure that their car doors are locked, and windows are closed, especially if they find themselves in a stationary position in congested areas.”

He said general street robberies have also become common at the intersection of Church and Hoosen Haffejee streets, near the Old Matsheni Beer Hall, the intersection of Church and Langalibalele streets and Otto Street near the Magistrate’s Court.

“It is suspected that street vagrants are responsible for most of these crimes. They operate in groups of two to four and will surround a victim, removing any valuables from him or her. We advise the public, especially the elderly, not to wear excessive jewellery, as it will draw unwanted attention.”

Warrant Officer Joshua Maistry, spokesperson for the Mountain Rise Police Station, said while the N3’s Chota Motala off-ramp is a hotspot, there has been a decrease in reported incidents in that area.

“Since two Msunduzi Safe City surveillance cameras were installed in the area, we have received no reports of smash-and-grabs.”

120716w Beeld Nuus A motorist sustained three stab


Johan Jonck, an advocate at road safety advocacy group Arrive Alive, said a person’s best defence is vigilance.

“You have two windows on each side,” he said. “Make sure you watch both of them.”

Jonck stressed that motorists must look out for criminals as they approach the vehicle, not only when they appear at the window. “If you see them early, you have time to take evasive action,” he said.

Jonck also advised motorists to invest in tinted windows.

A glass-fit specialist at a local glass-fit company made a good case for spending money on this type of protection. “Firstly, people must know that when you put the smash-and-grab tint on windows, it doesn’t prevent the glass from breaking, but it does hold the glass in place.

“Criminals then have to dig through the film (called safety lumnar film) to stick their hands in the car.”

He said that this type of protection deters criminals from stealing valuables inside a car, and also gives the motorist time to take evasive action. He estimated that they have between 20 to 26 smash-and-grab clients per month. Another local company said it deals with 18 smash-and-grab clients per month.


Local psychologist Clive Willows said smash-and-grab victims deal with shock, terror and a sense of helplessness.

“What is very important is we should not compare trauma in terms of its severity. The point is that in the moment of the trauma, we’ve got no idea how the trauma will end. The person may have a thought of major injury or even death, but it is only afterwards that one realises they did not face the worst possible consequences.”

He said for smash-and-grab victims, it is normal to experience a range of symptoms after the ordeal. “These symptoms usually exist in a four-week period after the actual traumatic experience.”

However, Willows, gave the reassurance that although the symptoms are normal, they are temporary.


• lock all your doors and close all windows;

• don’t have bags, cellphones, briefcases or other valuables visible inside your vehicle;

• be on the lookout constantly for suspicious looking characters. Don’t hesitate to report them to the SAPS;

• when approaching a red traffic light at night, slow down so that you only reach it when it turns green and therefore do not need to stop;

• never open your vehicle window or door for any stranger;

• if you encounter obstacles in the road such as rocks or tyres, do not get out of your vehicle to remove them. Reverse immediately and drive away in the opposite direction;

• always remove radios, CDs or cassette players from your vehicle if possible; and

• never leave children alone in a vehicle. — SAPS.


Charnel Hattingh, the national marketing and communication manager at Fidelity ADT urged people to report crime to SAPS.

“It appears that there are a large number of crimes that simply go unreported because of the nature of the crime or because of a lack of confidence in the system,” said Hattingh.

She said the selective reporting of crime is problematic as it contributes to the dissemination of misinformation around crime, rather than accurate and contextualised information which the SAPS and private security companies can then work on to apprehend suspects.

“No matter how big or small or how insignificant you feel the crime is - report it!” she said.

“A community approach to fighting crime is essential and always pays dividends leading to safer communities. It starts off with a commitment from residents to report crimes accurately and a follow up commitment from SAPS and other influencers in the sector, like the private security industry, to follow up on all leads and react proactively to trends and incidents to reduce crime levels,” concluded Hattingh.

Read more on:    pietermaritzburg  |  smash & grabs

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