The thing about crime in Johannesburg is that you don’t see it most of the time, but when it happens, it’s like something out of Hollywood. Lot Mthembu runs a chauffeur company in the city, and one of his Mercedes has a one-inch bullet hole. How it got there is a typically crazy South African crime story that involves a helicopter, a grandmother and Johannesburg’s notorious private security firms.
“I left the car at the car wash on a Sunday and went to a church function. When I got out, I had 23 missed calls,” he explained while driving through a leafy suburb. “They told me a gang had just stormed the place and stolen my car; it was the only one on the cleaning ramp,” he said. “The people who work there closed the gate, but they bombed right through.”
He didn’t blame the car wash, though – this kind of crime is typical in Joburg, and they went out of their way to stop the thieves. “There was an old lady there, maybe 65; she had a gun in her handbag, so she shot at these traitors,” he said. “She really wanted to hit the one in the passenger seat, but she missed and the bullet wrecked my passenger door”.
Lot gripped his steering wheel a little more angrily when he talked about the thieves. He called them traitors “because they’re thugs,” and because, in this country, where Wild West laws seem to rule, a traitor is the worst kind of scum.
Lot didn’t call the police next, but instead got in touch with a private company that tracks and recovers stolen cars. He wasn’t hopeful. “There’s usually no point speaking to them after an hour; they come only if you report it right away.” But he was lucky. “They tracked it down in Alexandria – a squalor township notorious for hijackings,” he explained. Since the townships contain some of the poorest and most dangerous areas in South Africa, tracking is done by helicopter, and recovering a car isn’t simple. “They went in there with the police, and there was a shooting to attack the thieves; eventually, they fled and left the car.” There were no more bullet holes in the Mercedes, and Lot hasn’t repaired the first one yet. It’s a a badge of honor now, and a warning to his customers to stay safe in a country with 50 murders a day. And if they ever caught the thieves? “I’d wring their necks,” he said.
After I spoke to Lot, his wife Rejoice offered her own car-related crime story. She was driving two of her eight kids home to her daughter’s birthday party when the car was attacked in a “smash and grab.”
“They do this on a daily basis,” she said. “When it gets dark, that’s when they pounce on people. They break the window, jump in, grab your handbag and run away into a ditch and just disappear.”
She’d been driving through one of the wealthier areas of town on a rainy night and noticed something strange when she stopped at a red light. “I saw someone preying on the car, it was drizzling and the first thing that crossed my mind was that it was a car-jacking.” Rejoice learned to expect this, because Joburg is the world’s carjacking capital, with up to 25 attacks a day: “I was prepared: If he said, ‘Give me the car,’ I’d give him my keys and get out with the children.”
But instead, he took out a sparkplug – it’s apparently the only way to get through reinforced glass, which everyone in Joburg installs in their cars: “The impact is huge – it shatters the glass into a million pieces,” she explained. “He jumped in, grabbed my handbag, and inside was my wallet, some perfume, and even a birthday present for my little girl.” It happened so fast she had no time to fight back. She thinks she’s lucky: “With smash and grabs, sometimes they kill – you’re lucky to have your life spared.”
Like many South Africans, Rejoice gets political when she talks about crime – right away she turned to the tough crime policies put in place by the new president, Jacob Zuma. “That’s what they need: they need aggressiveness,” she said. But she’d push things further: “Maybe we should bring back the death penalty.” She drove her kids home in a soaked car that night, and to this day they can’t forget it.
“Whenever we get to that spot they ask me, ‘Mommy, are we going to meet those criminals again?’ The real answer is, ‘Probably.'”