The brutal reality of South Africa’s gun culture, and how some victims are fighting back.
A woman is shot and killed and a 10-year-old girl wounded in a shootout between rival gangs in Westbury, west of Johannesburg.
This is a real incident. And every day, there are similar news headlines everywhere in South Africa.
Sometimes, they make it to the main pages, sometimes they don’t.
There are far too many to report.
The death of this woman angered the community in Westbury and put the area on pause, loaded with tension, as the locals blocked roads, burned tyres and threw stones at the police.
They believed the police were not rightly addressing the turf war in the area over drugs and guns, and the violence the gangs perpetrated against women and children.
In South Africa, a total of 2,930 women and 294 girls were murdered in 2017/18, according to crime stats of the South African Police Service (SAPS).
The statistics have driven some women at least to enrol in self-defence classes. They say they have to.
We visit the Black Duck Field Sports Shooting and Archery Range in Honingklip in Krugersdorp, about 38 kms from Johannesburg, where men, women and children are taught to use firearms at the outdoor range.
Donne Oosthuizen is a regular here and has been working with the Community Policing Forum (CPF) since 2002. She joined the neighborhood watch under the Douglasdale precinct, in the northern suburbs of Johannesburg, in 2012; with that, came the responsibility to patrol the streets to protect the community.
“I didn’t have my husband to protect me so it was about myself; if we faced a situation [where we needed to defend ourselves] and obviously protect someone else if they needed it,” says Oosthuizen.
All this stems from the fact that she has also been a victim of crime.
I’ve been through a lot of crime, I have been held up, been hijacked. My husband has had a gun to his head. I have two guns of my own, a 9mm and a shotgun, and I’m going to be building up my collection.
Oosthuizen has two daughters, aged seven and 10, and encourages them to practise at the shooting range, so they are not scared of using firearms if they need to protect themselves, and also so they are aware of the dangers of using them.
“If there is a situation at home where we are not able to protect ourselves because we’ve been shot, they can then protect themselves. They both shoot 9mm guns,” she says.
Oosthuizen is one of five women on the neighborhood watch, the youngest being 19 and the oldest 60.
The 34-year-old Oosthuizen has introduced her mother, Debbie Walters, to firearms too.
“I haven’t been happy that my daughter has guns but I understand that in the times we live in, we sometimes have to protect ourselves, especially as women. When it comes to my granddaughters…. [if the situation arises], the girls will be able to protect us if necessary,” says Walters.
As we walk the length of the shooting range, shots are fired from all directions,deafening sounds not rare in South Africa’s inner cities, except that this time, it has a different context.
Judy Holding is yet another sharpshooter at the Black Duck range who has been handling guns since 2016. She feels a gun is a part of empowerment as it helps women protect themselves.
“South Africa is dangerous and you need to be quite ready. We love this country, so if we are going to be here, we need to be prepared to live where we are,” says Holding.
She does not own a firearm yet but is in the process of getting a licence.
According to the law, before owning a firearm, a person needs to obtain a licence from SAPS; he or she will need a licence for every firearm under possession. The person is then prescribed training at an accredited training institution for a proficiency certificate. The process takes about six months. From there on, one can obtain a legal firearm from accredited gun dealers.
But are guns, really, the only route to self-defence?
Gun Free South Africa (GFSA) was established in 1995 with the aim of reducing gun-related violence and making a solid contribution to the safety and security of South Africans.
One of its founding members is Adèle Kirsten, who has been “a non-violent activist” for over 40 years now.
“1976 was my first year in university, that’s when the Soweto Uprising happened. So I joined the anti-apartheid movement. Most of my work during that time was around teaching people and engaging in what we called ‘direct non-violent action’. Basically, I come from a social justice background,” says Kirsten.
Today, Kirsten is the Director of GFSA and one of the biggest opponents of gun ownership in South Africa. She played a role in the National Peace Accord (NPA) during the 1990-1994 transition to democracy.
NPA was sought to end violence in South Africa and help establish a multi-party democracy.
That period was incredibly violent, she remembers. “More people were killed during that period than during the apartheid years. A lot of us were helping the country move through that period and into the first national democratic elections in 1994. It was also a time when massive [slug] guns were in the country.
“So we had a national amnesty in 1994 [calling to hand in firearms]. We didn’t get as many guns as we had hoped and we realized this is something we wanted to work on – a commitment to transforming our society.”
In 1997, she was appointed to a committee by the then Minister of Safety and Security to help craft a new policy for gun laws. In 2000, the Firearms Control Act was passed by Parliament which is still in place today. The numbers may have come down, yet, the statistics are brutal.
In 2014, reportedly, gun-related incidents overtook car accidents as the leading cause of traumatic spinal cord injuries in Cape Town’s government hospitals.
Wemeet Tshepo Seboko, a 31-year-old photography and videography student at the Vaal University of Technology, who was shot and injured during a robbery in Soweto in Johannesburg. Seboko was home for the weekend for his younger sister’s birthday.
“There were three of us on our way back passing through a passage, including a female family friend, and a close friend. We heard someone running from behind us and made way for him. He suddenly stops, pulls out a gun and wants our phones.
“The two managed to get away and I was in a tussle with the guy. He ends up on the floor and I start to run. As I was running away, that’s when I was shot from behind. After he shot me, he came and took whatever belongings I had,” Seboko painfully recalls.
He was rushed to hospital where he spent 10 days and was told he might not walk again because of the bullet lodged in his spine; which he has to date. After 10 days in the Intensive Care Unit, Seboko was moved to a rehabilitation center.After three months, he willed himself to get back to mainstream life.
I just realized how beautiful the gift of life is after such a dramatic [incident], he says.
Seboko went back to school but didn’t complete his course at the Tshwane University of Pretoria because he lost interest. Things changed after he accepted the harsh reality of his life.
Fortunately, the man who inflicted such bodily harm on him was arrested a few months later, and in 2010, sentenced to 18 years in jail.
“I heard earlier this year that he was released. I have the anger for it, but ever since the incident, I have not let the anger overwhelm me to make me the same person that he is in terms of violence. So it doesn’t really affect me. I wouldn’t know until I come face-to-face with him. So right now, I’m feeling robbed not only by him but the justice system,” Seboko says.
Seboko quit his corporate job after getting himself a camera and went back to creative school. He loves photography and has been inspired by his friends. He hopes to turn his pain into creativity and awareness.
Trauma is never easy to deal with. Nthabiseng Mogale, a 25-year-old qualified paramedic in Johannesburg, has saved countless lives working out of an emergency room on wheels.
She talks about trauma management in transit. “If a patient was shot and is conscious, it’s easier because you can communicate. We try stabilizing the gun wounds, controlling the bleeding and if the patient is in too much pain, we get medication into the body using drips to be able to move the patient on to a spine board, called a stabilization board. This board minimizes pain and stabilizes the neck and the spine,” says Mogale.
Women and children continue to be vulnerable to gun-related crimes. With the festive season approaching, the numbers are likely to go up. A police officer working in central Johannesburg, who does not want to be named, says the only solution is more “visible policing”.
“There are more operations now, and roadblocks to stop criminals, and there’s more patrolling in the malls,” he says.
Yet, will the guns ever go silent in South Africa?
According to 2018 statistics by Gun Free South Africa(GFSA), women make up 11% of gun-related murder victims. Guns are also used to injure, threaten and intimidate.
• Women are most at risk of being shot in their home by their intimate partner.
• Most victims have been threatened with a firearm before being shot. The four main types of threatening gun-related behaviour by men are:
1) Threatening to shoot their partner
2) Cleaning, holding or loading a gun during an argument
3) Threatening to shoot a person or a pet the partner cares about
4) Shooting a gun during an argument.
• Intimate partner violence and gun deaths are particularly high in families where men use a gun for work, such as in the police, army or private security industry.
• Two national studies of femicide (the murder of women) show that the number of women killed by their intimate partner (called intimate femicide) has dropped from four women a day in 1999 (an average of one woman being killed every six hours) to three women a day (one every eight hours) in 2009. Researchers attributed this decline to the Firearms Control Act (2000).
• Men make up 89% of gun murder victims in South Africa.
• Men living in metro areas have a “notably higher” rate of murder.
• Murder rates are highest in the 15–29 years age group.
• 23 people are shot and killed every day in South Africa.
138 people survive a gunshot every day in South Africa,often with severe disabilities closely associated with spinal cord injury. The World Health Organization (WHO) identifies trauma, specifically motor vehicle accidents, as the leading cause of such injuries worldwide, followed by falls and violence. However, according to the WHO, South Africa has a very high violence-related traumatic spinal cord injury rate in 2018.