After a sharp rise in the number of kidnappings in recent years, South Africa has one of the highest kidnapping rates in the world, as Mpho Lakaje reports from Johannesburg.
Lesego Tau didn’t panic at first when a stranger opened the back door of his gray Mercedes C-Class and got in.
She had parked outside a Johannesburg mall and was focused on texting a friend before picking up some items for a meeting that evening.
In my rear-view mirror I looked and still thought, ‘This person is going to be so embarrassed when they realize they’re in the wrong car,’ she told the BBC, recounting the events of last June.
But this was not an innocent mistake. “Our eyes met and I understood what is happening.” It was a kidnapping.
Six months earlier, businessman Yasin Bhiku was abducted from the driveway of his home near Johannesburg just after returning from the mosque.
CCTV footage, widely shared on social media, shows Mr Bhiku dressed in a blue T-shirt and black trousers, chatting calmly with a friend.
Two men can be seen getting out of a car parked opposite. They first head towards him and then rush towards him after Mr. Bhiku realizes what was transmitted and tries to flee.
He was overpowered and forced into the vehicle at gunpoint. The businessman was later found safe and sound and rescued by the police.
Ms Tau, who runs her own cleaning business in Pretoria, also tried to run away when she realized she was about to be terminated.
She said she tried to open her car door, but another man, dressed as a parking attendant and wearing a hi-vis jacket, blocked the door.
The man in the back seat showed he had a gun and ordered Ms. Tau to drive out of the shopping complex. Along the way, he was asked to stop and someone else jumped into his car.
A four-hour ordeal
Once in the countryside, after about 15 km of this terrifying journey, the kidnappers ordered Mrs Tau to stop. A red car then arrived at the scene and someone got out, took her bank cards and forced her to reveal her security codes.
“The other occupants of the car…began going through all my different cards. [de l’argent]”.
At the same time, her captors repeatedly hit her on the head with the gun, ordering her to increase her withdrawal limit.
The ordeal lasted more than four hours.
At one point, she heard someone on the other end of the line say to her, ‘Finish with her. We’re done.'”I thought they were going to kill me, but I thought, I have to fight. I have to fight. If they are going to kill me, they might as well fight me,” Ms Tau said.
She struggled to get out of the car, but the kidnappers grabbed her and started hitting and scratching her. She fled and ran across the road against the direction of traffic. This story and that of Mr. Bhiku are not isolated.
In February, Police Minister Bheki Cele disclosed that 2,605 kidnapping cases had been reported to authorities in the last three months of 2021.
In the decade since 2010, kidnappings have more than doubled in South Africa and there are now 10 kidnappings per 100,000 people, according to the South African think tank Institute for Security Studies.
In 2018, Mr. Cele promised to make the fight against kidnappings a priority.
Victims have been held against their will, either for ransom, to have their bank accounts emptied, or to be sexually assaulted.
Some did not make it out alive, although it is not known exactly how common this number is.
In an attempt to deal with this type of crime, the police have set up a special kidnapping team, which combines intelligence gathering and tactical intervention.
Crime syndicates target South Africa
One thing that has been established is that kidnappers tend to work in teams and kidnappings follow a pattern, with each member of the gang having a specific role, police spokesman Colonel Athlenda Mathe said. , at the BBC.
“Lookers are those who follow the target. Pickers are those who move to kidnap the victim.” Kidnappers often drive high performance vehicles and are usually heavily armed.
“Then we have the guards who would take over and guard the victim…until a ransom is paid.” But in the background there is a mastermind doing extensive research and pulling the strings .
“The boss would be someone who leads a high-end life and does not require the dirty work”, explains Colonel Mathe.
These criminals have tentacles in countries like neighboring Mozambique and as far away as Pakistan.
They tend to prey mainly on wealthy businessmen with the means to pay a ransom, but some victims come from poor backgrounds and children are not spared.
According to Gérard Labuschagne, private hostage negotiator, there has been an increase in very high value cases. Ransoms can reach $3 million.
“Organized groups operating in Mozambique and other parts of Africa have decided, for one reason or another, that South Africa is ripe for this type of crime and they are engaging in it with great success” , says Mr. Labuschagne.
Some social commentators felt that the general lawlessness made South Africa attractive to organized criminals from around the world.
Faced with public anger, the police acknowledge that there is still work to be done, but Colonel Mathe says they have made progress: “Since the identification of these unions, we have arrested 115 suspects, consisting of Pakistanis , Mozambicans as well as South Africans.”
One of the suspects is Faizel Charloos, 43, who was taken into custody in March. He is suspected of being the mastermind of a series of recent kidnappings.
During police raids on several Johannesburg properties linked to him, drugs, cash and a powerful vehicle were recovered.
Mr. Charloos recently appeared in court, along with several other people, on kidnapping charges. He made no comment.
It emerged that he had dual South African and Mozambican nationality.
The police do not save the victims
In another case, in April, police managed to rescue a four-year-old girl who had been abducted from a Johannesburg school by a woman posing as her food.
Her captors had demanded thousands of dollars to bring her back safe and sound.
But four people were arrested when they arrived outside a shopping mall to collect the ransom.
Despite these advances, Mr. Labuschagne is not convinced that the police are winning.
“We have had one or two arrests. But in the overwhelming majority of these cases, the police do not rescue the victims from where they were held. They are released after payment.”
Mrs Tau was lucky enough to be able to flee, but her captors took $1,400 (£1,100) from her.
This ordeal enhanced her psychological damage and threw her family into distress.
“My father is not a crying man, but he had tears in his eyes. He kept thinking he could have protected me.
“There’s always a part of me that died that day.”