September 07 2008 at 09:31AM
By Mary Corrigall
The reign of terror unleashed on South Africans in their homes by gangs of armed thugs is worsening dramatically.
Residential robbery is up by 14,5 percent nationally, according to the police's 2007-2008 crime statistics.
Based on these figures, every day almost 40 homes are invaded by armed robbers.
And it is not only robberies that are threatening the sanctity of the home. Sixty-eight percent of hijackings happen in driveways, according to Richard Brussow, a former policeman who runs the National Hijack Prevention Academy.
The 2007-2008 police statistics show that the frequency of car hijacking has increased by 4,4 percent and that there has also been a spike in business robberies, the frequency of which has gone up by 47,4 percent.
These figures prove that crime threatens almost everyone, at whatever level of society, in this country.
"The annual increase in the rate of house robberies poses an immense threat to our personal security," Dr Johan Burger, a senior researcher for the crime, justice and politics programme at the Institute for Security Studies, told The Sunday Independent.
"We are under siege."
Residential robbery is differentiated from residential burglary in that it is classified as a crime in which armed individuals enter a private residence by force with the intent to rob.
An example of this was last week's horrific attack in Meyersdal, south of Johannesburg, in which a couple's daughter was gang-raped and both parents were shot and wounded by the police, who mistook them for the robbers.
Residential robbery is a relatively new category of crime, listed separately in the police's crime statistics for the first time in 2002.
"It used to be a sub-category of aggravated robbery. It was smallscale when it started out. But as this type crime grew it began to attract the attention of the police, and the need to record it as a separate crime type became a necessity," said Burger.
During the first year residential robbery was defined, 9 063 cases were recorded and since then the figure has grown steadily, with 14 481 incidents logged for 2007-2008.
"Business robberies have also increased, so when you are at work you are also at risk. Shopping malls and restaurants are all places of work, which means that you are never safe," said Burger.
For those who can afford it, the fight-back is under way.
People are retaliating with state-of-the-art security systems that incorporate lasers and cameras, armed guards outside their homes, by joining community associations and community policing forums, and by setting up websites that monitor and report on robberies in the neighbourhood.
eBlockwatch is one of the largest crime-fighting community networks in the country. It has 60 458 members, according to its founder, Andre Snyman.
Profiles of criminals are posted on the website and information is shared among community members by SMS and on the internet. The information generated by the system is passed on to the police and has led to arrests and convictions, said Snyman.
However, according to the Institute for Security Studies' 2007 victim survey, 60 percent of South Africans do nothing to protect themselves against crime and only 20 percent have attended a meeting of a community policing forum.
But Burger said there was little citizens could do to curb residential robbery.
"Research shows that robbers are highly organised. They use their own transport and acquire the services of people working at security companies and in government departments before they target your home."
The state's response to residential robbery has been very slow, according to Burger.
"The arrest and conviction rate for this crime is low - criminals aren't scared. The chance of getting away with this kind of crime is very high," he said.
In Gauteng, where the incidence of residential robbery is the highest in the country, intensified policing initiatives, such as Operation Iron Fist and Operation Trio, have been introduced over the past few years.
Though they have had some effect, bringing the number of house robberies in the province down by 5,4 percent, the incidence remains high.
"What is 5 percent? Let's say there are 10 robberies in one community - that community is going to be living in terror. All it takes is one tragedy," said Firoz Cachalia, Gauteng's MEC for community safety.
Cachalia said that having an efficient police force was insufficient if the entire criminal justice system was ineffective.
"Our arrest rates were increasing but not our conviction rates: we were getting the police to be more effective but we weren't taking [criminals] out of the system, which is really what counts."
This article was originally published on page 1 of Sunday Independent on September 07, 2008