Is kidnapping on the rise?

High profile cases such as the four Moti brothers kidnapped on their way to school in Limpopo in October and businessman, Yaseen Bhiku, snatched off the street in Johannesburg in November, raised questions about whether kidnappings are an increasing problem in South Africa and whether crime syndicates are involved.

The media reported the kidnapping of at least 40 people in the last three months of 2022. 

But that is a tiny percentage of 2,605 kidnappings reported to the police between October and December 2021.

So is kidnapping on the rise?

In 2021, the South African Police Service (SAPS) released its crime statistics for the period 1 April 2020 to 31 March 2021 in which it reported that 6,030 cases of kidnapping had been opened at police stations. 

In February 2022, SAPS’s stats showed that in the remaining nine months of 2021, 6,837 kidnapping cases had been reported, an increase of more than 800.

The last four months of 2021 showed the highest number of reported kidnappings in five years. 

It’s also clear from the monthly statistics that reported kidnapping cases decreased significantly during the coronavirus hard lockdown in April 2020 and also in January and July 2021, when 9pm curfews were put in place. 

Are these kidnappings for ransom?

The SAPS defines kidnapping as “unlawfully and intentionally depriving a person of his or her freedom of movement”.

But are all these kidnapping cases financially motivated? 

When the SAPS presents the annual crime statistics to Parliament, it often breaks down kidnapping into categories, such as kidnapping for ransom, vigilantism, domestic violence, hijacking and robbery, and sexual exploitation and rape.

Most kidnappings are because of robberies and hijackings, according to reports given to Parliament between 2017/18 and 2019/20.

“Police analysis suggests that the likely victims [of kidnap hijackings] are adults who are taken to ensure tracking devices aren’t activated or to access cash from the victim’s bank cards,” wrote Institute for Security Studies researcher Lizette Lancaster in an article in 2020.

In a recent email interview, Lancaster said that the link between gangs and armed robberies needs to be investigated and “armed robbery gangs also need to be prioritised, dismantled and prosecuted”.

Kidnapping for ransom, which is where crime syndicates tend to come into play, is a small percentage of the total kidnappings reported in South Africa. 

In the crime stats briefing on 18 February 2022, Major-General Norman Sekhukhune said of sampled 2,205 kidnappings that occurred between October and December 2021 analysed by the SAPS, only 85, or 3%, were kidnappings for ransom.

In statistics for previous years, the percentage of kidnappings for ransom was below 3%, except for 2018/19. 

The listing of categories of kidnapping in police data is new for the SAPS, said Martin Ewi, the Technical Coordinator of the ENACT Project at the Institute for Security Studies.

“There was a time I tried to develop 10-year annual trends and it was extremely difficult just using the SAPS record because of lack of consistency. Before they were just lumping everything [all the kidnapping statistics] together. Kidnapping was kidnapping, it didn’t matter whether it was kidnapping for ransom, family feud or gang-related.

“Now the data is much more structured, and we can distil kidnapping for ransom and some other forms of ransom. But this has not been consistent. And this has been a methodological challenge for researchers.”

Who gets kidnapped?

The police do not break down the gender, income group or age of kidnapped people in the crime stats. But in a 2019 response to a parliamentary question, Minister of Police Bheki Cele reported that between 2015 and 2018, 20% of the 9,474 kidnap cases were children.

In the six months between September 2021 and February 2022, the media reports on kidnappings the victims included shop owners, foreign nationals, children, and teenagers. They were kidnapped for a variety of reasons, from ransom and extortion and domestic disputes to ritual killings, according to the reports.

When it comes to kidnappings for ransom, Kyle Condon, owner of the private investigative and risk analysis DK Management Consultancy, said: “The profile of victims targeted by kidnapping syndicates now appears to be spread across the income line.

“Meaning not just wealthy or high net-worth individuals are being targeted. Many cases we are looking at involve average earners with no visible source of disposable money. This could be because of the higher net-worth individuals having more resources to increase their personal security.”

Rate of kidnapping compared to murder

Over the last 10 years, the rate of kidnapping has increased from seven in every 100,000 people in 2011/12 to 11 per 100,000 in 2021/22.

However, compared with murder statistics, you’re more likely to be murdered than kidnapped in South Africa. There were 33 murders per 100,000 people during 2020/21.

So do police manage to apprehend kidnappers? 

“We don’t have statistics on the outcome of kidnappings. Victims are often returned or freed, but details are scant. Arrests are reported, but the number of arrests are not correlated with the number of cases,” said Lancaster.

In the media reports, The Outlier analysed, police rescued most of the kidnap victims. 

But seven died at the hands of their captors, namely, 29-year-old Mpumalanga shop owner Rezaul Amin Molla, 55-year-old Frans Mazuze and a family of five – kidnapped from their Pietermaritzburg farm – 64-year-old Sizwe Ngcobo, 41-year-old Thandazile Zondi, 40-year-old Bonokwakhe Khuboni, two-year-old Sibongile Fanelesibonge and baby Libra Ngcobo.

Despite the tragic end for these kidnap victims, most of the kidnap cases reported in the media resulted in arrests. 

The most recent data for kidnapping cases resulting in arrests and convictions are from a parliamentary reply from 2018. There are far more arrests than convictions, but this data is limited – we don’t know if the convictions are for far earlier cases.

All but two of the police stations that reported the most kidnapping cases in the last quarter of 2021 are in Gauteng.

Methodology

Data was collected using Crime Statistics, and we used estimated population data from Statistics South Africa between 2010 and 2021. The types of kidnapping were found in a PowerPoint from April 2018, 2019 and 2020 South African Police Service’s presentations to Parliament. The numbers for 2021 were from a 2022 speech delivered by Police Minister Bheki Cele.

An earlier version of this article said the Moti brothers were kidnapped in Mpumalanga, instead of Limpopo. We have corrected this error.

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