Unmasking South Africa’s global crime underworld

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Global organised crime is an evolving, profit-driven activity that embraces new markets and new technologies. It refers to a broad spectrum of ever-changing activities that has moved from traditional hierarchies towards more flexible, network-based forms of organisation.

To some extent the world that we live in is a victim of its own success. This success created a flourishing underworld filled with criminal activities due to globalisation and the rise of growing economies. The globalisation of legal economies has given rise to an illegal underworld, because one of its more disruptive effects allows people to operate efficiently below the radar in an organised manner and in illicit markets.

According to the global organised crime index of 2023, South Africa has been ranked in seventh place of countries with the most organised crime globally – and third in Africa. This is an achievement that any government should be ashamed of. The index highlights how major political shifts and economic hardship feed directly into organised crime dynamics around the world. South Africa is at a crossroad of being both a source for organised crime and a destination for criminals to commit these crimes.

Causes of crime

The index reveals that South Africa grapples with more than one form of organised crime. These include human, arms, organ and drug trafficking, child labour, labour exploitation, domestic servitude and child brides. These forms of organised crime have created thriving criminal markets that are supported by the influence of criminal actors – responsible for years of state capture – and criminal networks that are highly interconnected.

It is important to distinguish between two main groups within organised groups namely territorial and trafficking groups. Territorial groups are structured as hierarchical criminal groups. Their modus operandi includes violence, and they focus on honour and respect as operational agendas. These groups are more prominent in the Western Cape among the street gangs. Trafficking groups, on the other side, are invisible and driven by profit and crime network opportunities. They are difficult to identify and can easily commit illicit drug dealings in public spaces. Trafficking groups initially emerge as territorial groups in geographically defined contexts before developing into trafficking groups. These groups can exist on their own within the context of an organised crime underworld. However, they can also merge into a singular main group, since territorial groups can predominantly become a trafficking group if it prevails past its territorial characteristics. This suggests an uneven global criminal economy that exists among these groups with divisions between criminal activities in urban and rural environments.

States-within-states

Organised crime is often powerful enough to create its own states-within-states and undermine the integrity of their host states and of national borders. Naturally, crime has long been employed as a tactic to fund political insurgency. Organised crime can directly affect national security resources, whether through plundering state budgets (with implications for defence expenditure) or through undermining morale and discipline. South Africa’s national security and intelligence policies struggle to keep up with crime developments. These developments pose as a challenge since the South African Police Service and the South African National Defence Force are strategically designed to deal with other states in a diplomatic manner. It has become profoundly difficult for governments to adapt to sovereignty-free actors around the world, not to mention on a local level.

Once organised crime moves beyond South African borders into neighbouring countries it becomes less likely for police services to intervene. Officials find themselves with their hands tied, since each country has their own unique laws in dealing with crime. The international community is not sufficiently equipped to respond to these states-within-states yet.

Unmasking the underworld

The widening gap between organised crime and our collective resilience efforts highlights the urgent need for informed, practical strategies to combat organised crime. Cooperation between communities and the government must be promoted to combat organised crime. South Africa’s growing instability is causing a dire economic crisis, rattling the foundations of governance. Criminals choose to operate in the underworld for a number of reasons. Some groups do this as it is easy without repercussions; others are forced into these groups due to financial desperation and an urgency to secure an income. The benefits that organised crime enjoys in South Africa is the absence of effective law enforcement to fully investigate and prosecute criminal syndicates.

The government has created self-imposed hurdles such as their low institutional capacity, corruption and the increasing influence of corrupt state officials that have hindered the civil society’s ability to provide sufficient support to citizens. Decades of corruption between government institutions and criminal organisations have ultimately eroded the trust that communities have on government and law enforcement in general and has also caused a negative impact on the resilience of these governing bodies.

Community-based crime prevention strategies are employed worldwide to tackle various forms of criminal activity. These prevention strategies include and neighbourhood watch groups. These input from local residents and offer a comprehensive approach to addressing and preventing crime. The ultimate goal is to foster a spirit of cooperation within communities to counter organised crime. Consequently, there is a growing trend towards community-based resilient responses to widespread crimes, provided that they remain within the boundaries of legal compliance and that the approach is generally encouraged.

Charné Mostert is a campaigns officer at AfriForum. She holds an honours degree in international politics (cum laude) and is studying towards a master’s degree in security studies from the University of Pretoria. Charné generally publishes on X (previously Twitter), LinkedIn and Tik Tok.