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In S. Africa, 2 percent of population is behind bars

Prison January 17, 1998
Web posted at: 1:03 p.m. EDT (1303 GMT)

JOHANNESBURG, South Africa (CNN) -- More than 34,000 South African prisoners have escaped in the last four years while awaiting trial, police said Friday.

The news highlights the difficulties that the newly democratic country is having in combatting some of the world's highest levels of violent crime -- and in fighting perceptions that crime is on the rise.

South Africa's murder rate is seven times higher than that of the United States. The rate of other crimes, including armed robbery and hijacking, is also high, and anecdotal evidence of the problems are easy to find.

Simon Nash, who was forced out of his car at gunpoint and made to lie down on the ground, recalled that the next day when he went to work, his friends called him "and congratulated me for not being shot and not being killed. Which seems ridiculous, that you must be congratulated for an event like that."

South Africa crime
icon 3 min. 22 sec. VXtreme video

His attackers were not caught. But even in cases where criminals are arrested and sent to jail, there is little confidence that they will remain imprisoned.

Prison escapes common

Most of South Africa's prisons are overcrowded; 2 percent of the nation's 41 million people are behind bars. Headlines are filled with stories of prisoners who escape, some simply walking out of poorly guarded or poorly secured installations.

Compounding the problem, the justice system is also overloaded, and bound to become more so. Prosecutors in magistrates' courts this week went on what amounts to a go-slow strike, refusing to work overtime if they are not being paid.

What it all means for one young Soweto girl is a delay in the trial of her uncle Brian, the man she says raped her. "I'm still not feeling OK," she said, "because Brian is still alive. I'm scared he will come back and kill me."

Brian has already escaped twice from prison while awaiting trial on previous charges. His own brother turned him in to the police, but says he should have killed him.

"The police, they are not doing their job very well," said Jerry Mokgatle. "A person like Brian ... maybe we shouldn't give Brian to the police. It was better to bring Brian to the graveyard, not the police."


'Whoever is cheaper, you can buy'

If law-abiding citizens have little confidence in the law, gangsters like David have little respect for it. "Whoever is cheaper, you can buy," he told CNN in an on-camera interview, clearly unconcerned that his identity would be revealed. He has never been convicted of a crime, despite being arrested five times.

"Sometimes you can buy the investigating officer to, like, disrupt the evidence. Sometimes not to call the witness to the court, and he claims they are not responding to him. Sometimes you buy the clerk of court and he can steal the charge sheet," David said. "If I'm arrested, I pay, I go out."

Residents such as hairdresser Joanna Mkubu suffer the consequences. Like so many others in Soweto, she is the victim of an armed robbery. And like many others, she firmly believes the police "are doing nothing" to stop crime.

The economy may be affected as well, Nash said. "I know (crime) affects my thinking and it affects other associates' thinking, and it certainly affects foreigners' thinking," he said. "There is absolutely no doubt about it, it is costing the country billions."

Mandela disputes rise in crime

The African National Congress government says crime is rooted in poverty, and insists it is doing everything it can to create more jobs.

South African President Nelson Mandela says the claim that criminal activity has increased under a democratic system is nothing more than propaganda put out by political opponents.

Memorial wall
A memorial wall dedicated to crime victims  

He maintains that incidents of murder, attempted murder and culpable homicide in Johannesburg have declined since his government came to power.

"Facts and figures actually disprove the notion that there has been a rapid escalation of these crimes, and confirm that we inherited the high levels of these crimes from the apartheid system," Mandela said.

Like South Africa's new democratic constitution, crime recognizes no class, race or religion. All are touched by it and many live in a state of constant unease. People who struggled so long for liberty still have their freedom curtailed, fearing those who respect no law or order.

Correspondent Mike Hanna and Reuters contributed to this report.


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