Multiple murders: a mark of SA’s gun and organised crime crisis

Incidents that claim more than one victim have soared, with KwaZulu-Natal as the epicentre of the phenomenon.

Early Sunday morning, 10 July 2022, gunmen entered Mdlalose tavern in Nonzamo informal settlement in Soweto, South Africa, and opened fire with automatic rifles, killing 16 patrons and injuring seven others. The massacre, which caused widespread shock and outrage, is an extreme example of ‘multiple murder’ – incidents of violence in which two or more people are killed.

Multiple murders in South Africa have escalated considerably in recent years. The number of incidents in which three or more people were killed in 2022 was 140% higher than in 2019/20.

Together with major increases in the murder rate, these killings highlight a significant shift in violent crime, characterised by the rise of firearm use and entrenched organised crime, particularly in some provinces.

Figures recently released by Police Minister Bheki Cele indicate that 5 709 people were killed in 2 446 multiple murder incidents between April 2019 and December 2022.

The major driver of rising multiple murders is criminals’ increased use of firearms

South African Police Service (SAPS) data shows that these attacks make up a small proportion of total murders. In the 2022 calendar year, 2 430 people – 9% of the 27 066 murdered – died in multiple-killing incidents. Nevertheless, this is a substantial increase from the 5.3% of victims who died in this way in the 2019/20 financial year.

According to SAPS figures, there were 1 057 multiple murder incidents in 2022. In 806 (81%), two people were killed. There were 174 incidents (17%) in which three or four people died, and 20 (2%) in which between five and seven were killed (see pie chart). In two incidents (0.2%), eight people were murdered in each attack.

Number of people killed per multiple murder incident, Jan-Dec 2022

Number of people killed per multiple murder incident, Jan-Dec 2022

Source: SAPS
(click on the chart for the full size image)

The other multiple killing in 2022 was the Mdlalose tavern incident in which 16 died. This high death toll can be attributed to the perpetrators’ indiscriminate firing of automatic weapons at people in a confined space. Police found over 130 spent AK-47 cartridges at the tavern after the massacre.

The major driver of rising multiple murders is criminals’ increased use of firearms. The killings are in some respects part of the normal epidemiology of gun use in crime, which often results in more than one person dying or being injured. The provinces where multiple murders contribute most to the overall murder rate – notably KwaZulu-Natal, but also Gauteng and the Western Cape – have the highest levels of firearm use in violent crime.

Many deaths in multiple killings can be considered ‘incidental’. The perpetrator’s intention may be to kill a specific person, but one or more die in the ensuing gunfire. Such multiple murders reflect an extraordinary degree of callousness regarding the potential loss of life. For example, celebrity chef Tebello Motsoane, who was killed during the assassination of rapper Kiernan Forbes (AKA) on 10 February, apparently wasn’t a target.

In many cases, perpetrators intend to kill a specific person, but one or more die in the gunfire

Evidence at a bail hearing for some of those arrested for the Mdlalose tavern massacre revealed that the targets of the attack were not even among those who died.

The growing role of firearms in crime is intertwined with another increasingly prominent source of insecurity and violence in South Africa. Available evidence suggests that many multiple murders are linked to criminal groups of one kind or another. They may be related to the drug trade, poaching, taxi industry, local protection and extortion rackets, illegal mining, stock theft or vigilantes seeking to suppress crime. A systematic analysis of multiple murders hasn't been conducted, and could confirm these connections.

The epicentre of the multiple murder phenomenon is KwaZulu-Natal. In 2022, almost a third of all these deaths, 798 out of 2 430, were in the province. Cele also noted recently that assassinations were often carried out by hitmen from KwaZulu-Natal, even when they occurred in other provinces. As in the Kiernan Forbes case, some of these hits cause death or injury to multiple victims.

Rising firearm-related crime, often linked to the activities of criminal groups, partly reflects chronic dysfunction and corruption in the SAPS, including in crime intelligence and the firearm registry. These two components of the police should be vital to the control of illegal guns and organised crime.

Rising firearm-related crime partly reflects chronic dysfunction and corruption in the SAPS

Some suggestions for addressing these interlinked problems include a specialised firearms unit, or targeted police operations that confiscate illegal guns and ammunition. It is generally agreed that responses should include better intelligence gathering and analysis of crime data.

These measures could be helpful, but a piecemeal approach will have limited impact. South Africa’s crime and violence challenge extends beyond firearms and organised crime to chronic problems such as gender-based violence, corruption and infrastructure theft.

These problems can only be tackled through a strategic approach to strengthening the SAPS and criminal justice system. Until there’s a clearly defined programme for doing so, the state’s ability to deal with the deteriorating public safety situation is unlikely to improve.

David Bruce, Independent Researcher and ISS Consultant


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Development partners
Research for this article was funded by the Hanns Seidel Foundation and Bavarian State Chancellery. The ISS is also grateful for support from the members of the ISS Partnership Forum: the Hanns Seidel Foundation, the European Union, the Open Society Foundations and the governments of Denmark, Ireland, the Netherlands, Norway and Sweden.

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