REVEALED: This is why there are now so many mass shootings at taverns in South Africa

  • In a shooting attack late on Saturday night, 16 people were killed in a tavern in Orlando East, Soweto.
  • A gunman wielding an AK-47 assault rifle entered the tavern and "sprayed" patrons with bullets.
  • The attack calls into question the country's gun laws and the number of illegal weapons circulating in criminal networks.

A brutal mass shooting at a tavern in Soweto last week bought South Africa's gun laws and the issue of illegal weapons into the spotlight.

A total of 16 people were killed in the shooting in Orlando East, Soweto.

In a separate incident in Pietermaritzburg, just a few hours before the Soweto attack, four people were shot dead in a tavern.

There also seems to be an increase in mass shootings in the Western Cape this year.

It was reported in June that at least 22 people had been shot in Khayelitsha, Cape Town, in mass shooting incidents this year.

This week, on The Story, we talk to News24 reporter Ntwaagae Seleka, who was on the scene at the Mdlalose Tavern in Nomzamo Park, Soweto, covering the aftermath of the brutal shooting that took place at the weekend.

According to Seleka, residents were visibly shocked and angry, demanding answers from the police.

Community members said the police's deployment of the Tactical Response Team to search door-to-door for illegal weapons in the community was too late.

We also hear from the senior researcher at the Dullah Omar Institute at the University of the Western Cape, Dr Jean Redpath, who discusses South Africa's "strict" gun laws and suggests what could be behind the increase in gun violence in recent years.

She said it was highly likely that the weapons used in the Soweto tavern shooting were illegal.

"If it is illegal weapons that are being used, then it is a question of enforcement; it's a question of properly tracking and finding the illegal weapons, rather than changing the legislation (around owning guns)," said Redpath.

Mass killings are rare in South Africa, although gun violence is not.

Tim Thema, a leader in the informal settlement, said there’s been multiple deadly shootings in the area over the past year.

"Everybody’s got a gun in Soweto," he said. "Whether you’re a foreign national, you are a citizen of this country, all of them, they’ve got guns and you ask yourself, what kind of country is this? We cannot live in a society where everybody’s just got guns and do wherever he pleases."

This weekend’s violence was not isolated.

Another four people were killed by gunmen in Pietermaritzburg, a city in the eastern province of KwaZulu-Natal.

While two people have been arrested in connection with that shooting, the assailants from the Soweto tragedy remain at large.

Government authorities said the events are not linked.

Bheki Cele, South Africa’s police minister, spoke to reporters while visiting grieving residents in Soweto Monday.

“They were about plus-130 empty cartridges of AK-47, which means those people that were there really meant business of killing," Cele said. "We don’t believe it was terrorism. So, it’s a group of people we believe we will get the motive as soon as we find them.”

Crime has overall been on the rise in the country.

The first quarter of this year saw over 6,000 murders — the highest rate for any quarter in the last five years, according to police statistics.

Crime experts say gun control campaigns in the 1990s and early 2000s to confiscate and destroy illegal weapons resulted in a decline in violence.

But in the last decade, the progress has reversed.

Lizette Lancaster is the manager of the crime hub at the Institute for Security Studies in Pretoria.

“We have seen problems in policing and law enforcement where corruption has become quite rife, especially at places like the central firearms registries, where destruction of firearms were not — or often resulted in guns being sold back into the hands of criminals,” she said.

Lancaster said there are signs of improvement, with efforts to tackle corruption bringing in new, more qualified people into leading law enforcement positions.

But curtailing gun violence isn’t just about policing, she added. The country’s socioeconomic issues also need to be a priority.

“Poverty doesn’t make you a criminal. There needs to be other factors. And the growing inequality is one of that, but also just the proliferation of these organized groups are stoking the fires simply by having more people that are willing to engage in organized crime in order to feed their family.”

Soweto residents fearful of future attacks say these solutions can’t come fast enough.

South African President Cyril Ramaphosa condemned the killings on Sunday, calling them "unacceptable and worrying."

"As a nation, we cannot allow violent criminals to terrorise us in this way, regardless of where such incidents may occur," he said in a statement.

Many bars in South Africa are unlicensed establishments called shebeens that date back to the apartheid era when Black South Africans were prohibited from entering licensed bars. They have become notorious for being sites of violence and risky sexual behavior because they operate late into the night without oversight, per the World Health Organization.

According to World Bank data, South Africa has one of the world's highest murder rates, with 33 murders per every 100,000 people in 2020, compared to seven out of 100,000 people in the US in the same year.

Last month, 22 teenagers, some as young as 13, were mysteriously found dead in a bar in East London on South Africa's eastern cape. Cele said police had not determined how they died, but survivors were reported saying they had smelled a substance close to tear gas or pepper spray in the bar.


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