Sunday, 22 October 2006

We (almost) hire an AK-47

Monako Dibetle

29 September 2006 07:43

Two weeks ago I connected with gun dealers on the streets of Sharpeville in the Vaal Triangle. They agreed to lease me an AK-47 for a day for R2 000. After two months of telephonic negotiation with the dealers -- former Umkhonto we Sizwe (MK) and African People’s Liberation Army (Apla) cadres -- the deal was struck.

They knew I was a journalist, and therefore had financial backing, and that they were on to a good thing -- before it escalated, the starting price was R1 000. Under normal circumstances, the price for leasing an AK-47 or R4 rifle on the streets ranges from R500 to R600 a day or per “operation”.

The standard police response is that semi-automatic rifles are leaking into the country from neighbouring states, particularly Zimbabwe and Mozambique, where demobilised soldiers are selling them.

But my contacts told me the AK came from an arms cache laid down in Sharpeville during the anti- apartheid struggle.

The fact that apartheid-era caches still exist, and appear to be feeding weapons to criminal syndicates, may partly explain the statement in the South African Police Service’s 2005/06 annual report about “increases in the incidence of robberies at business and residential premises, cash-in-transit robberies and car-jacking.

“It seems that people are being fatally wounded during incidents like these because criminals increasingly use heavy-calibre firearms,” the report says.

However, a former Apla contact I spoke to told me that arms were also being stolen from the South African Defence Force for street deals.

I should make it clear that my purpose in contacting the arms dealers was purely journalistic -- I wanted to see how easy it would be to lay my hands on a semi-automatic weapon and what it would cost.

Cultivating connections with the dealers was no easy feat, as they are constantly on the lookout for police investigators. The supply chain usually revolves around people who have been in the business for years -- newcomers are generally not tolerated.

The procedure behind selling or leasing weapons is that every member of the group must be consulted and agree before a transaction takes place. I had to win the approval of five people.

My go-between was a former MK cadre, who I had met at a conference. He set up my first meeting with the dealers, in the dark in front of the 1960 Sharpeville massacre site in the centre of the township.

Suspicious of my intentions, the five dealers hovered in the vicinity for 30 minutes -- presumably checking for police. With the coast clear, the deal was struck.

Two weeks later we met at the same place -- and I was shown and briefly held the AK and a full magazine. We agreed to meet the next day for the handover, but the meeting never took place because our contacts did not pitch up.

According to a former Apla combatant and member of the South African National Defence Force (SANDF), Lucky Twala (not his real name), weapons from both the anti-apartheid era and the current defence force are easily accessible in the townships, if one has the contacts. He claimed such weapons include hand grenades, tear gas canisters, bullet proof vests, camouflage uniforms and even rocket launchers.

He said: “There are many of us out there and we are poor and angry. The rise in the use of machine guns in South Africa will continue because there is supply of the arms when you really need them.”

Twala said it was possible to buy an R4 rifle for R4 000 on the streets. Its higher price is because of its relative scarcity -- AK-47s are easier to come by.

Twala told me that most of the arms reach the streets by means of orders given to SANDF insiders who steal them at shooting ranges. Some had been buried for years and have only recently been exhumed to meet increasing demand.

He said most of the AKs entered the country from Mozambique and many had been stolen by South African soldiers from the Lesotho armed forces during the attempted military coup in that country in 1998 and had been kept for personal protection.

Twala said soldiers from neighbouring states were willing to sell weapons to South Africans for less than R1 000.

He claimed that combatants were at the forefront of most robberies. The former cadres turned armed robbers were driven by frustration with government for “forgetting about them after 1994”.

Source: Mail and Guardian Online
http://www.mg.co.za/articlePage.aspx?articleid=285341&area=/insight/insight__national/

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