The business of (dis)organised crime in South Africa


The concept of organised crime often evokes images of mafia-like figures and secret societies involved in acts like drug trafficking and murder.

Globally, this ‘mafia mystique’ is associated with shadowy organisations such as the Chinese triads or Japanese yakuza, while in South Africa, the focus is often on notorious figures like Radovan Krejcir.

In reality, however, the organised criminal economy is mostly sustained by unsophisticated and ad hoc criminal networks, along with corrupt relationships. Sophisticated and structured criminal groups do exist, but these are not the only form of organised criminality.

Fluid criminal networks and illicit business dealings have an even larger impact on the citizenry, and it is the failure to account for that these leads to systemic organised crime issues. In South Africa, criminal networks that are more commonly associated with organised crime include drug-trafficking syndicates, gangs in the Cape Flats, cash-in-transit operations and poaching syndicates. However, groups like housebreaking gangs, cellular phone thieves, second-hand metal dealers and cable thieves also fuel the organised criminal economy.

Sophisticated and structured groups are not the only form of organised criminality in South Africa
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Many crimes that are committed by these ‘unsophisticated’ networks also feed into broader networks of organised criminal activity. When researching the effects of organised crime, it is therefore important to also look at the broader value chain of criminal groups and the supply chain of criminal economies.

This, in turn, should inform both policy and operational responses to threats. Any analysis of organised crime should therefore start from the grassroots and the police station level. This would allow for a better understanding of the impact that organised crime and the criminal economy have on South Africans.

For example, the market for stolen goods in South Africa remains extremely large, particularly in certain communities. This demand for stolen goods is believed to lead to increases in robbery and housebreakings, which could, in turn, lead to increases in violent crime and murder. Research conducted in 2008 suggests that while murder rates in the country had been dropping, this decline was slower in areas where robbery had increased. It is therefore possible that more effective measures to curb illicit commodities and markets could also reduce murder rates.

While there may be a high level of criminal networking between those who commit robbery, the middlemen and the sellers of stolen goods, an interesting feature is the fluidity of groups and their connections. For example, groups committing robberies may change members, and they may choose from a variety of other actors to sell these goods.

Effective measures to curb illicit commodities and markets could also reduce murder rates
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After a group (which is on average comprised of four people) commits the initial robbery, they interact with middlemen who often use legitimate businesses to sell the goods or export it to foreign markets. These legitimate businesses can serve as a front to hide the illegal connections of middlemen, and these fall into a ‘grey’ area of engaging in both legal and illegal activities. The majority of those taking part in these crimes are career criminals, driven by economic motives.

Another important example of organised criminal networks can be seen in business robberies. Over the past three years, the country has seen substantial increases in robberies at businesses or at non-residences, indicating a huge increase of 460% from just 3 320 in 2004/2005 to 18 615 in 2013/2014. Armed robberies at shopping malls also showed a staggering increase from 274 to 665 cases: an increase of 142% in the past three years.

It has been reported that the majority of the criminals involved in the spate of 2014 mall robberies were linked to three main networks, with a significant number of gang members and over 400 people linked to the broader network. This points to the fluidity of these networks, which consist of a core group that draws on a larger group and rely on a host of other actors to support them.

Preventing organised crime in South Africa should focus on loose, informal and ad hoc networks
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Specialised law enforcement agencies are acutely aware that these highly flexible groups are at the epicentre of organised crime, and that the broader network includes those who can move illicit goods transnationally. The supply chain extends beyond the gangs that commit the crimes; and the market for stolen goods remains strong. This requires input from legitimate businesses, such as the scrap metal dealers who sustain the cable theft economy.

In this way, it mimics more traditional crimes such as poaching, whereby fairly disorganised groups later sell the goods to more sophisticated gangs or individuals. Yet the impact of organised crime is not felt only among high-income groups and businesses.

As author David Bruce has argued, the prioritisation of so-called ‘trio crimes’ (namely carjacking, house robbery and business robbery), which are often carried out by specialist gangs, has been ‘misguided’ and ‘elitist’. Bruce says that ‘street robbery’, which is not an official crime category but which affects the majority of South Africans, has not been prioritised in the same manner.

According to Bruce, many of those involved in street robbery may be ‘generalists’ who also engage in robbing homes and businesses. He adds that ‘many of the former township areas serve as a training ground for robbers who eventually graduate into the specialist robbery gangs.’ Furthermore, many marginalised and poorer suburbs have become breeding grounds for criminality given a lack of socio-economic opportunities and policing.

During the Khayelitsha Commission of Enquiry into policing, many of the problems in South African policing structures were pointed out, including the unfair deployment of policing, overburdened detective services and problems with social conditions. Intelligence gathering at the grassroots and station level remain woefully underdeveloped in these areas, as police have not prioritised intelligence reporting.

If analyses of organised crime fail to include the elements that feed into this phenomenon, subsequent responses to such crimes will remain inappropriate. Investigations into such crimes will be narrowly focused, intelligence will be ineffective, resources would be inadequate and policy responses will be insufficient.

Many organised crime groups develop from a grassroots level and intelligence should be prioritised from the bottom up, focusing on infiltrating and rehabilitating such groups before they engage in serious organised crime. Preventing organised crime in South Africa should therefore start with intelligence that focuses on these loose, informal and ad hoc networks that plague the country, and police structures should urgently re-evaluate police prioritisation and deployment.

Khalil Goga, Researcher, Transnational Threats and International Crime Division, ISS Pretoria

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