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South African Tavern Shootings Reflect Rising Crime Trends


South African President Cyril Ramaphosa joins mourners gathered in the coastal city of East London to grieve the still-mysterious deaths of 21 teenagers in a tavern, in East London, in the Eastern Cape province, South Africa, July 6, 2022.

In the aftermath of two weekend tavern shootings in South Africa that left 19 people dead, communities are asking what needs to be done.

At an informal settlement in Soweto, a township in Johannesburg, hundreds of people are trying to make sense of the brutal killing of 15 people at a tavern this weekend.

Mass killings are rare in South Africa, although gun violence is not.

Tim Thema, a leader in the informal settlement, said there’s been multiple deadly shootings in the area over the past year.

"Everybody’s got a gun in Soweto," he said. "Whether you’re a foreign national, you are a citizen of this country, all of them, they’ve got guns and you ask yourself, what kind of country is this? We cannot live in a society where everybody’s just got guns and do wherever he pleases."

This weekend’s violence was not isolated.

Another four people were killed by gunmen in Pietermaritzburg, a city in the eastern province of KwaZulu-Natal.

While two people have been arrested in connection with that shooting, the assailants from the Soweto tragedy remain at large.

Government authorities said the events are not linked.

Bheki Cele, South Africa’s police minister, spoke to reporters while visiting grieving residents in Soweto Monday.

“They were about plus-130 empty cartridges of AK-47, which means those people that were there really meant business of killing," Cele said. "We don’t believe it was terrorism. So, it’s a group of people we believe we will get the motive as soon as we find them.”

Crime has overall been on the rise in the country.

The first quarter of this year saw over 6,000 murders — the highest rate for any quarter in the last five years, according to police statistics.

Crime experts say gun control campaigns in the 1990s and early 2000s to confiscate and destroy illegal weapons resulted in a decline in violence.

But in the last decade, the progress has reversed.

Lizette Lancaster is the manager of the crime hub at the Institute for Security Studies in Pretoria.

“We have seen problems in policing and law enforcement where corruption has become quite rife, especially at places like the central firearms registries, where destruction of firearms were not — or often resulted in guns being sold back into the hands of criminals,” she said.

Lancaster said there are signs of improvement, with efforts to tackle corruption bringing in new, more qualified people into leading law enforcement positions.

But curtailing gun violence isn’t just about policing, she added. The country’s socioeconomic issues also need to be a priority.

“Poverty doesn’t make you a criminal. There needs to be other factors. And the growing inequality is one of that, but also just the proliferation of these organized groups are stoking the fires simply by having more people that are willing to engage in organized crime in order to feed their family.”

Soweto residents fearful of future attacks say these solutions can’t come fast enough.

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