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South Africa’s growing kidnapping problem

The country now averages more than 1,000 cases a month

A woman sells fat cakes to a young girl on her way to school in Johannesburg. Associated Press/Photo by Themba Hadebe

South Africa’s growing kidnapping problem

On Oct. 20, Missing Children South Africa put out a “Kidnapped Adult Alert” for 40-year-old Maggie Skosana. Kidnappers abducted the disabled municipality manager along with her driver in South Africa’s Mpumalanga province. 

Authorities later found her wheelchair and other personal belongings in her abandoned vehicle. A private investigator on Monday said her family had received a ransom demand of more than $277,000. Authorities eventually found Skosana and her driver abandoned but alive in the bush late on Wednesday in Gauteng province but did not confirm if any ransom was paid. 

“We were not mentally OK,” Skosana said of her ordeal. “We kept on praying for God to set us free.”

Skosana’s case is one of the latest amid an ongoing surge in kidnappings in South Africa. The country has averaged more than 1,000 cases in the first half of the year. Crime experts say the rising number of abductions points to an “established and lucrative” practice involving local and international syndicates, a different context from what has spurred similar kidnapping cases in countries like Nigeria and Haiti. 

Bianca van Aswegen, a criminologist who serves as national coordinator for Missing Children South Africa, said her organization has sent out more alerts for kidnapped adults and children this year than usual. The nonprofit group has also fielded additional calls on its emergency hotline and other platforms for support from the South African police and from civilians. One caller saw the group’s alert for a missing 4-year-old earlier this month and called with a lead. Sadly, police later found the girl’s body. “She was brutally murdered,” van Aswegen said. 

The surge in kidnappings for ransom in South Africa began in 2016, although such abductions only account for about 5 percent of kidnappings, according to the Global Initiative Against Transnational Organized Crime. The group noted that robberies, sexual offenses, and hijackings make up the majority of kidnapping cases. For example, late last month, criminals in two cars snatched a 35-year-old woman on the streets of Cape Town in broad daylight. 

The GI-TOC said low-level gangs stage opportunistic abductions without extensive planning. But foreign-based syndicates from neighboring Mozambique and other nations like Pakistan, Bangladesh, and Ethiopia also operate in South Africa. Police in January detained four members of a syndicate from Bangladesh linked to the abductions of at least five Bangladeshi nationals in South Africa. 

Attacks have also surged as South Africa battles an economic crunch brought on by the pandemic. “We see a lot of false job advertisements going around where people fall victim to kidnapping,” van Aswegen said. 

Abductions in other nations like Nigeria have also drawn global attention. Islamist extremist groups in the country’s northeast have abducted students and community members amid a security vacuum. Criminal groups have also stepped up kidnapping activity in the northwest region. 

In Haiti, gangs have blockaded streets and terrorized communities amid political instability. But the Haiti-based Center for Analysis and Research in Human Rights recorded a 37 percent dip in kidnappings in the third quarter of this year compared to the second. The group said 206 people were abducted between July and September, including 17 foreigners. 

“It should be recalled that diplomatic and international missions had adopted measures to protect their nationals after the wave of kidnappings in the second quarter,” the group said. 

In South Africa’s Western Cape province, authorities are pushing for an anti-kidnapping unit to tackle the rising attacks. “We have now watched these grow to the point where there isn’t a week that goes by where there isn’t kidnapping, and that is quite worrying,” said Cape Town Alderman J.P. Smith, who oversees safety and security for the city government. 

Earlier this year, the South Africa-based Institute for Security Studies noted the country also needs greater international security partnerships to deal with global syndicates. “International cooperation and coordination are vital to tracking and tracing illicit proceeds and investigating and dismantling the groups responsible,” the group noted.

Meanwhile, van Aswegen’s group has continued to share tips in addition to its emergency alerts. Missing Children teaches people how to verify whether companies are legitimate before going for interviews and cautions them not to leave children unmonitored at playgrounds. “We’re trying to improve our educational aspect to create awareness,” she said.

World Radar

MYANMAR: The military in the country also known as Burma launched airstrikes on Sunday, killing at least 80 people while they were celebrating the 62nd anniversary of the Kachin Independence Organization, according to a spokesman for the group. The military junta released a statement saying the strikes in Hpakant township were in response to “terrorist” acts carried out by the KIO’s armed wing. It also called reports of civilian deaths “rumors,” denying the military had bombed a concert that was part of the celebration. But ambassadors from the United States and other Western nations said Sunday’s attack “underscores the military regime’s responsibility for crisis and instability.” 

SYRIA: A cholera outbreak has killed 75 people and likely infected at least 20,000 others, according to UNICEF. The disease is spreading to neighboring countries, such as Lebanon, which recorded 10 cholera-related deaths and 448 confirmed cases within two weeks. Symptoms of acute gastroenteritis caused by cholera bacteria include severe diarrhea, vomiting, and dehydration. Responders traced the outbreak source to contaminated water in the Euphrates River. Aid groups, including UNICEF, are distributing water treatment tablets and medicine and training locals in cholera prevention. 

KENYA: Police fatally shot Pakistani journalist Arshad Sharif, claiming it was a case of mistaken identity. Sharif was traveling with a companion Sunday night in a car that did not stop at a police roadblock outside Nairobi. Officers opened fire on the vehicle, killing Sharif and wounding his companion. Police claimed they were on the lookout for a similar car involved in a child abduction case. But observers suspect foul play as Sharif, a vocal critic of Pakistan’s military, had fled his home country following death threats and sedition charges and was living in hiding in Kenya. 

ETHIOPIA: The warring sides in the nearly two-year Tigray War are meeting this week in the first formal peace talks. Fighting between the Tigray forces and Ethiopian troops resumed in August after a five-month truce. The restive northern Tigray region is still cut off from humanitarian aid. Last week, Ethiopian troops reported the capture of three towns in the region. The African Union–led negotiations in Pretoria, South Africa, will continue through Sunday. U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken welcomed the meeting: “These talks represent the most promising way to achieve lasting peace and prosperity for all Ethiopians.” 

SOUTH KOREA: A professor at Dong-A University in the southern port city of Busan has taken to trash scavenging to learn more about the country’s reclusive neighbor to the north. In one year, Kang Dong-wan collected 1,414 pieces of trash that washed away from North Korea and onto the shores of five South Korean islands in the West Sea. Kang told The Korea Times he extended his search this year to the East Sea shores. His finds include different product packages, paintings, and pottery. His search has led to 35 different types of ice cream packaging, disputing a common assumption that the nation lacks a wide variety of products. One yogurt-flavored ice cream package claimed it “improves intestinal bacteria and helps children to grow taller.”

WORLD Asia correspondent Joyce Wu contributed to this report.

Onize Ohikere

Onize is WORLD’s Africa reporter and deputy global desk chief. She is a World Journalism Institute graduate and earned a journalism degree from Minnesota State University–Moorhead. Onize resides in Abuja, Nigeria.



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