Guns are killing our communities


Two police officers while conducting a crime prevention operation in Inanda were shot dead. Constable Jabulani Mavundla and his partner were attending to a complaint of a robbery when on their way back to the police station, they were ambushed. Mavundla lost control of their vehicle, crashed and died on the scene. His service pistol and a rifle were stolen.

A recent massacre in Marikana, Phillipi in the Western Cape, saw four people shot dead inside a tavern. Three more people were shot and killed inside a shack nearby while one person was shot outside the structure, two between the shacks and one person later died in hospital due to injuries.

A two year old girl was among the victims of recent gang wars when she was shot in the mouth while a man was also killed in Elsies River on the Cape Flats. The toddler joined a number of children caught in the crossfire between rival gangs. In February, boys, aged 12 and 14, were wounded in shootings. In the same month, an eleven-year-old girl was wounded when she was used as a human shield. In August, seven-year-old Esra Daniels was shot and killed in Grassy Park while a month later in September, Aqeel Davids, 9, was shot and later died in hospital. 

These are just some of the harrowing stories of police people and children who die at the barrel of a gun in South Africa. Never mind, the others who suffer a similar fate.

The American constitution guarantees citizens of the United States to bear arms. It is a right that is vigorously safeguarded because, as Americans would argue, their independence and constitutional dispensation was brought about through the barrel of a gun. While over the years, the US has tried to tighten gun control, the number of massacres that have rocked the US continues unabated.

South Africa’s constitutional democracy, one could argue, was not brought about through the barrel of a gun but through a peaceful and negotiated process. We did not have a civil war, in the classical sense as the Americans did, but there is evidence that a war was waged. Liberation armies fought the South African Defense Force, guerrillas were deployed to attack strategic installations while others were sent to sabotage key bases.

Many would argue that the sabotaging continues today. Civil servants deliberately do not perform their duties, as they would have done in the old Bantustans, because this was their form of resistance. Teachers continue to refuse to teach because they once refused to participate in Bantu education. The historical institutional culture continues to persist in our corridors of the state.

Guns too were once smuggled by the liberation movements to ensure that the war against apartheid was fought and soldiers were equipped. AK47’s, R5 rifles and the like, were often supplied by foreign governments to the liberation armies and remain out there with no process of demilitarization having taken place. This is one of the disadvantages of declaring that South Africa did not have a civil war, civilians remained armed.

Classically, a process of demilitarization would occur in countries where civil war took place. Both sides would de-arm, as happened for example in Northern Ireland and even in some countries in Africa were disarmament would take place. South Africa, because it was never recognized as a conventional civil war, never had a formal process of disarmament and as a result we continue to have a gun problem.

NGO Safer Spaces, on their website, indicate that the National Murder Survey 2015/16 showed that 16 people were shot and murdered everyday in South Africa. In other words, just under 6000 annually. While the figure is still high, it is a reduction of approximately 34 per day in 1998.  In the same period, 2015/16, murders by guns accounted for nearly a third of all murders. The same NGO states that guns still play a significant role in femicide.
In 2015, using data from 2012, the World Health Organization declared South Africa to be the second worst country in the world for gun-related deaths. South Africa followed the United States. To complicate matters, statistics related to guns are particularly difficult to determine given the widespread occurrence of crime happening using stolen guns. 

As a result, the non existent demilitarization process in South Africa is compounded with the widespread occurrence of gun robbery or theft. 

International NGO, ‘GunPolicy’, suggests that there are approximately 3.5 million guns owned by South Africans, legally and illegally. In world ranking, a decade ago, this meant that South Africa was ranked 17th in the world for private gun possession. A decade ago, the defense forces in South Africa was said to have just over 350 000 guns in its possession. In other words, six times more firearms are in the possession of civilians than the state.

The Truth and Reconciliation Commission reported how criminal gangs were often used by the police either to destabilize political activities or even to directly destabilize communities. The police would often use gangs and leading gangsters to disrupt the operations of those fighting for freedom and target struggle activists. Needless to say that the supply of guns often came with this support.

As a result the debate about guns in South Africa is a very complex one. Yet while it may be complex it is a debate that is not happening. Unlike in the US, where gun laws and gun control emerges as an election theme or is discussed in the wake of a gun massacre, South Africans seem to be oblivious to talking about this instrument that is used to perpetrate dangerous crime.

Very little, if anything, is said about guns in the ANC’s “Peace and Stability” document and proposed resolutions as it prepares for its 54th National Conference. One would have thought that ANC provinces most hit by the scourge of gun abuse would propose measures to tackle gun control. Provinces such as the Western Cape, Gauteng and Eastern Cape in particular should have been at the forefront of proposing stricter gun laws.

Unlike the US constitution, our constitution does not guarentee our citizens the right to bear arms. It could well be a good proposal for political parties to consider a total ban on civilian ownership of firearms. Making it illegal for a civilian to have a gun does make it easier to control and manage. Sadly, our political parties and our public representatives in particular are very far from bringing up these real issues to tackle issues that would save lives.  

South African civil society, especially our churches, mosques and temples, must become advocates calling for the banning of all civilian guns and demanding an end to the senseless killing of our people through bullets. It is time that civil society becomes as active as it is in other democracies calling for and ensuring the complete elimination of these machines which kill and maim. What we need as a country is a total rejection of rights to arms and an embracing of ensuring that all South Africans, not just farmers, are safe.

Vuyo Mhanga is the Provincial Deputy Chairperson of the ANC Youth League in Gauteng and Buyile Matiwane is the Western Cape Chairperson of the South African Students Congress