Despite several promises that issues with the Central Firearms registry would be fixed, there has been no change, leaving South Africans vulnerable to gun crime, writes the Institute of Race Relations' Jivika Singh.
In view of the extent of violent crime in South Africa, and specifically the recent spate of horrific tavern shootings, there have been renewed calls for expanded and more rigid firearm control.
Some, like News24's Adriaan Basson, have suggested a near complete ban on civilian gun ownership, along the lines of the Japanese model. Police Minister Bheki Cele has long expressed similar intentions, and a proposed amendment to the Firearms Control Act (FCA) would push South Africa along the path to this objective.
But before new measures are introduced, a question needs to be answered: How are the existing measures operating to ensure that firearms do not reach the criminal underworld, and why, some two decades after the act was passed, has the FCA evidently failed at keeping the nation safe from gun violence?
Criticism levelled at CFR
One point needs to be made clearly at the outset: South Africa does not have a permissive firearm ownership system. The FCA establishes a detailed system of control over the trade, ownership and handling of firearms. Its intentions include preventing the proliferation of small arms in the country and encouraging responsible firearm ownership; to these ends. It requires ensuring that people who want to own firearms earn the necessary competency and proficiency qualifications and that firearms are licensed with the authorities. The law specifies limits to the type and number of weapons that may be owned, differentiating between the grounds on which they may be owned.
The keystone of the system is the Central Firearms Registry. The CFR is the entity responsible for controlling civilian access to firearms which was meant to maintain the integrity of firearm ownership by tracking citizens who legally owned firearms. Over the past few years, however, a great deal of criticism has been levelled at the CFR. To understand this, we reached out to some organisations involved in South Africa's gun debate.
Claire Taylor from Gun Free South Africa points to a range of implementation problems in respect of the FCA. These include backlogs in licence processing, confusion around renewals, and overall corruption.
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On the CFR, Taylor describes it as "a collapsing cornerstone of gun control". One of the problems noted was that the CFR has two existing systems, one manual and one electronic. This undermines the integrity of the CFR's database system and creates loopholes, which facilitate fraud and corruption in the firearms control management system.
GFSA has called for several government interventions, including a temporary moratorium on issuing all licences, permits and authorisations, a forensic audit of licences, permits and authorisations issued, prosecutions for all those found guilty of diverting firearms and finally, an assessment of existing cost-effective firearms control registry systems in use in other countries.
Gideon Joubert, a long-standing firearm advocate and trainer, who is now with Dear SA, explained that a high degree of criminal infiltration of the SAPS, endemic corruption in the service, and the lack of transparency and control of the existing administration of the CFR had made the licensing system vulnerable to exploitation by criminals. This works its way through the system from top to bottom. There have been instances where crooked people in the CFR have advised criminals which station is best placed to handle their applications.
Joubert also points to the administrative burden of the existing system. At present a firearm owner must apply for a licence for every individual firearm they own, which unsurprisingly results in a significant administrative burden on both the gun owner and the SAPS. He suggests the alternative of treating firearm licensing in the same way as licensing drivers: the natural person is the licence-holder, and their firearms are registered to their name.
An issue that comes up repeatedly is the need for an electronic system of firearm tracking and registration: this was intended to be introduced to track firearms and firearm transactions in real time, but has never been implemented.
According to Aziza Scheidereiter, a representative of The South African Gun Owners Association (SAGA), introducing this system could be a game-changer:
An electronic system would enable constant monitoring of firearms, and would record their sale and transfer efficiently – far more so than is possible with the largely manual mode.
Scheidereiter also recommends that government should consider privatising this basic function.
There seems to be an overall consensus among stakeholders – remarkably, irrespective of their differences on policy – that the current system is not working. Currently, the SA Police Service lacks the capacity to process the legally required paperwork. There have even been reports of buildings physically deteriorating due to the sheer weight of the build-up of unprocessed paperwork. An electronic system has never been rolled out. The CFR has been exposed to exploitation by corrupt police officials and criminals.
Why is there a hold up?
So, what's the hold up? In particular, why hasn't the SAPS yet implemented an electronic system to control the distribution of firearms, when the technology is available. The SAPS has stated that the problem it faces regarding firearms control is the lack of a dedicated budget for the CFR, over and above licence-fee income. However, according to figures cited in a 2020 study by Jenni Irish-Qhobosheane, Gun Licences for Sale: South Africa’s Failing Firearms Control – citing numbers from the Civilian Secretariat for Police (CSP) – the police received a budget of R280 million, as well as an additional sum for the CFR and its IT systems amounting to more than R307 million between 2007 and 2009. The Auditor-General identified another R343 million spent on the CFR IT system during its 2014 audit.
"Yet,” Irish-Qhobosheane writes, "despite these considerable sums of money that have been spent on systems at the CFR, the administration of firearms by the registry still remains a serious risk."
The dysfunction of the CFR has left South Africa vulnerable to gun crime. Despite several mentions of "turnaround" strategies, substantive change is yet to be seen.
- Jivika Singh is an intern at the Institute of Race Relations.
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