Police minister Bheki Cele. Picture: GCIS
Police minister Bheki Cele. Picture: GCIS

Police minister Bheki Cele’s intention to disarm ordinary citizens while expanding armed protection for himself and others who consider themselves to be “very important persons” (VIPs) demonstrates an extraordinary level of contempt for the man and woman in the street.

The police, he argues, will protect us. That is a fallacy, as proven over the past few days of looting and destruction. It is extremely rare for a police officer to be on the scene as a crime happens. The police cannot, with the best will in the world, protect us individually. The best they can do is protect us collectively and indirectly by tracing and arresting criminals after the event.

The numbers are relevant here: there are 340 citizens per police officer in SA, but taking into account shifts and that some are in stations and in administrative posts, that actually translates — at best — to about 1,360 per officer on duty and directly involved in crime fighting. By contrast, our VIPs will have an average of 30 officers looking after each of them, an average of six at any one time.

The minister also argues that private gun ownership drives violent crime, but even cursory research does not support his argument. The 15 countries with the highest private gun ownership average 36.83 guns per 100,000 of the population and average gun homicides of 0.91 per 100,000.

The five countries with the highest private gun ownership average 52.56 guns per 100,000 and 1.28 gun homicides per 100,000. The five countries with the highest gun homicide rates average 9.76 guns and 39.4 gun homicides per 100,000.

So much for privately owned guns driving violent crime. Interestingly, eight of the 15 top gun-owning countries have an overall murder rate lower than the 1.2 per 100,000 of the UK, despite all having more than 20 private firearms per 100,000.

There is another aspect: again, as illustrated over the past few days, armed civilians can be a first line of defence. During the terrorist attack on the Westgate mall in Kenya in 2013, the first effective response was by civilians with their own pistols, who helped others escape. During the St James Church massacre of 1993 in Cape Town it was a civilian shooting back that caused the attackers to break off the attack, preventing them from killing even more people (I must own to personal interest here — my former partner’s aunt was one of those killed). 

But from the rare to the more mundane, if one can call any violence mundane. In 2005, in the run -p to the existing firearms legislation, I did a scan of friends, colleagues and acquaintances. At that point 15 had encountered a burglar in their home or been the intended victim of an armed robbery, hijacking or mugging. Eight were armed. Of these, one was lightly wounded; none lost anything. Two of the attackers were killed, one wounded and arrested, and four detained by the intended victim and handed over to the police.

Of the seven who were unarmed, two were killed, one badly beaten and stabbed, and one badly beaten; all lost valuable possessions. Only one attacker was ever apprehended. I have direct interest here: the person who was badly beaten and stabbed multiple times was my then 65-year-old mother, attacked at her desk at home by a man released the previous day under a Republic Day amnesty.

Since then, a good friend was beaten to death in his house by three burglars “because he resisted”, and another was shot in his driveway during a hijacking. Neither was armed. Two acquaintances have suffered home invasions. By contrast, a single armed civilian frustrated an armed robbery at a church in Centurion in July 2020.

The bottom line is that having a firearm, and having it to hand, is very likely to make the difference between living to call the police or being found dead or injured afterwards. The minister clearly lives in a different world to the rest of us — certainly a world with multiple armed bodyguards.

We can begin to take him seriously when he disbands the VIP protection unit, withdrawing all armed bodyguards from the president, ministers, deputy ministers, provincial politicians and city mayors. Until then, we must consider the minister contemptuous of us.

And then there is Gun Free SA. We can begin to take them seriously when their members and groupies cancel their armed response contracts and put clear signs at their gates or front doors stating “no guns in this house and no armed response”.

• Heitman is an independent security and defence analyst. 

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