It was midday when Cornel Maree’s neighbours hit the panic button.
Maree’s home was under attack from three men who had used a steel rod to force open the imposing metal gates, then smashed down the door and made off with his possessions in a brazen daylight assault.
Alerted by his neighbours’ private security firm, Maree raced home from work and found the intruders had even stolen food from his expansive modern villa in the well-heeled Johannesburg commuter town of Krugersdorp.
“I was distraught,” says Maree, the head of training for the South African blood donor service.
“I felt so violated. I was angry.”
The robbery a fortnight ago is indicative of South Africa’s crime epidemic – one that has been the focus of frenzied global attention over the trial of Oscar Pistorius, the Paralympic sprinter accused of murdering his girlfriend, model Reeva Steenkamp – whom he claims he mistook for a burglar.
“I can sympathise with Oscar Pistorius when he said that he was frightened by the possibility of an attack in his own home,” says Maree. “We all live in fear here.”
Pistorius was to learn whether the judge in his six-month trial also sympathises with his version of events. The 27-year-old faces up to 25 years in prison if Judge Thokozile Masipa finds him guilty of murder.
In his affidavit, Pistorius said he was “acutely aware” of violent crime in his homeland. His father, grandfather and uncles owned 55 guns between them, and the athlete, who lived in one of the most exclusive guarded communities, had applied for licences for six more firearms, in addition to the gun with which he killed Steenkamp.
“I have received death threats before. I have also been a victim of violence and of burglaries,” he said. “For that reason, I kept my firearm, a 9mm Parabellum, underneath my bed when I went to sleep at night.”
Last year 45 people were murdered each day.
The most recent report from the UN’s Office of Drugs and Crime shows that South Africa has the ninth-highest murder rate in the world. And in a country of 51 million, where the difference between rich and the poor is among the greatest around the globe, there were 40 firearms offences reported to the police daily.
As general manager of EPR Security – a private company that installs alarms, patrols areas and provides rapid-response units – the surge in demand tells Johan Krogh all he needs to know. There are now twice as many private security guards as police.
“It’s a genuine fear – it’s not paranoia,” says Krogh, who has worked for the company in Randfontein, 32km from Johannesburg, for 15 years. “We’re seeing a spike in crime, and it’s more violent. There are far more firearm incidents than there were even five years ago – revolvers, pistols, whatever can be stolen or bought on the black market. And our business is growing because people have lost confidence in the police.”
Krogh’s company employs 140 people, who work in 30 armed reaction vehicles across three commuter towns to the west of Johannesburg. The hub of operations is the control centre – a bunker protected by bulletproof glass and reinforced steel doors, which only opens with a time lock. Inside, analysts monitor CCTV footage 24 hours a day, and co-ordinate the rapid-response vehicles.
In a neighbouring room, Raymond van den Berg is fielding calls from one of the three sectors, his hands darting across the computer screen as he updates the log to show when an emergency call is received, who is assigned to attend, and where they are.
It is early morning on a bright, sunny day this week, yet the control centre hums with activity. Is it always this intense? “Yep,” van den Berg replies, in between issuing rapid-fire instructions to his colleagues in Afrikaans. “It’s always like this.”
In Krugersdorp, Wimpie Lombard sits in his patrol car awaiting calls. His father was a policeman, and he always wanted to work in security but he has little time for the state forces.
“They can take an hour and a half to arrive at the scene,” says Lombard, 31, who has worked as an armed guard for 14 years.
He says the increase in violent crime is partially due to soaring unemployment – now at 25 per cent. Five EPR colleagues have been shot dead in the past nine years.
Back at Maree’s house, his brand new burglar alarm is being fitted – complete with panic button. “So many of my neighbours have been broken into. And a colleague had a gunfight with robbers who broke into his home, while his wife was hiding beside him, helping him to reload the gun while their children hid under the bed. It’s a fact of life in South Africa.”
– Daily Telegraph UK