South Africa's Deadly Disaster

The continuing saga of South Africa's dwindling gun owners provides a case study of what gun-banners want to do in the United States.

By Dave Kopel

America's 1st Freedom, March 2010

More by Kopel on South Africa.

When not banning guns outright, the gun prohibition lobbies--both in the United States and abroad--promote gun owner licensing as a "reasonable" and "sensible" regulation. Yet, the terrible experience of South African gun owners shows how purportedly "reasonable" licensing can be used to devastate a culture of responsible gun ownership.

Most of what has been done to South African gun owners is already being pushed in the United States: gun rationing; targeting the poor and people of color; making gun ownership unaffordable; confiscating guns without compensation; and implementing a licensing system that can be deliberately abused in order to stop good people from owning guns.

Add to this list a government that plays a leading role in arming violent criminals, and you have the deadly disaster of today's South Africa.

The mechanism for gun rights destruction was the Firearms Control Act (FCA), passed in 2000 by the South African Parliament. The key force behind the bill was Gun Free South Africa, one of the many global gun ban lobbies funded by George Soros.

The governments of Canada, Japan, the United Kingdom and New Zealand provided advice on the draft law, as did Wendy Cukier, head of Canada's gun prohibition lobby.

South Africa has a long tradition of shooting sports. The first record of an organized sporting event there was the "parrot shoot," an annual event that began in Oct. 1686. Borrowing from a European tradition in village fairs, Dutch settlers shot at clay or wooden replicas of birds, known as "papegaij."

Unfortunately, South Africa developed a comprehensive series of racial caste laws, formalized in 1948 as "apartheid." Whites had the most rights, followed by "coloureds" (immigrants from Asia), with blacks at the very bottom.

One of the first steps in dismantling this evil system was led by South African gun owners. In 1984, the apartheid government proposed limiting the number and types of firearms that individuals could own. A new citizen organization, the South African Gunowners' Association (SAGA,, was created to fight for gun owner rights--and they defeated the government plan.

SAGA did not stop there. The group began pushing to fix the gun laws so that non-whites would have the same rights as whites. SAGA won this fight in Parliament. However, many police administrators abused their powers and thwarted gun license applications by blacks.

Finally, in 1994, apartheid came to a long-overdue end when South Africa held its first multiracial free elections.

Control of the government passed to the African National Congress (ANC), which was fighting a revolutionary war for much of the century. Since then, South Africa has been ruled by the ANC, and year by year the ANC comes more and more to resemble the former apartheid regime.

Like the apartheid regime, the ANC props up a network of allied dictatorships in southern Africa. Without the support of the ANC, Zimbabwe's genocidal tyrant, Robert Mugabe, would not still be in power.

Like the apartheid regime, the ANC controls the South African Broadcasting Corporation's radio and television stations, keeping them in conformity with ruling party ideology, and using the license system to exclude alternative viewpoints.

At the United Nations, the South African delegation protects its tyrannical allies (such as Mugabe and the military junta in Burma) by protesting against outside interference with governments that abuse human rights. The current South African delegation's arguments are nearly identical to the arguments that the apartheid regime once used when it insisted that foreigners should remain silent about oppression in South Africa.

And like the apartheid regime, the ANC is an enemy of gun owner rights in general, and of black gun owners in particular.

The Firearms Control Act of 2000 rationed gun ownership--no more than one self-defense gun per person and no more than four guns total. The lifetime limit on gun ownership is the logical extension of current efforts by American anti-gun lobbies to ration firearms with "one-handgun-per-month" laws.

All guns must also be registered--the better to enforce the ownership caps.

Semi-automatic long guns are not allowed, except for farmers and a few other special categories. The lone self-defense gun must be a handgun or a manually operated shotgun.

At its outset, about a third of gun owners had more guns than the FCA allowed, so they were required to sell the guns or surrender them to the government. Section 137 of the FCA expressly promised that compensation would be paid to people who surrendered their excess guns--either because they had "too many," or because they were enticed by one of the government's voluntary gun surrender programs.

More than 600,000 guns have been given to the government, yet the government has yet to pay a penny. In 2005, National Police Commissioner Jackie Selebi declared, "You can't be paid for doing away with an evil thing."

The new licensing system went into effect in 2004, applying immediately to new applicants. People who had licenses under the old system (the former Arms and Ammunition Act were divided into groups based on date of birth, and required to apply for new licenses starting in 2005. The final set of applications was due on June 30, 2009.

To obtain a gun license in South Africa, one must pass a written "competency test." The South African constitution recognizes 11 official languages, but the test is only given in two of them, Afrikaans and English. Imagine if your gun ownership rights depended on passing a written test in a language you could not read!

Applicants are not issued licenses if they are deemed to be at risk of becoming violent. As enforced in South Africa, this could simply mean that a person was divorced, separated or fired within the past two years.

Processing of applications is very slow. For example, of the applications submitted in 2006, only about a quarter have been fully processed.

Licenses are valid for two, five or 10 years, depending on the legal category of the license, so keeping a gun can mean staying on a near-constant treadmill of paperwork, fees and uncertainty. The majority of the 2005 applicants, who are supposed to renew in 2010, are still waiting for a decision on their 2005 applications.

Note that complying with all the laws is no guarantee law-abiding people will be able keep their guns. South Africa now has what Sarah Brady, head of the Brady Campaign, described as her long-term objective: "needs-based" licensing. (New York Times, Aug. 15, 1993.) You get to buy or keep a gun only if the government decides that you need it. In South African law, the formal term is "good motivation."

Safety and Security Minister Charles Nqakula wrote in a letter to the Gun Dealers' Association: "Licenses for firearms should not be granted to private individuals." Similarly, his spokesperson Lesley Xinwa announced, "We are determined to cut down on the number of guns in the country."

Many license applications are denied, particularly for blacks and others who wish to own self-defense firearms. The Central Firearms Registry (CFR) refuses to say what actually constitutes a good "motivation" for a self-defense firearm. Instead, applications are rejected with the terse verdicts "lack of motivation" or "insufficient need."

Married women who want guns for protection are told that their husbands will protect them--as if South African woman should behave like Taliban wives, and never leave the home except with their husbands. People who live in high crime areas are told that the police will protect them--except that the police obviously don't, as South Africa is one of the most crime-ridden countries in the world.

Adults who are less than 27 years old are told that they are too young--even though the FCA sets the gun ownership age at 21 (an increase from the old law, which was 16).

Ownership of a firearm without a license is punishable by up to 15 years in prison.

The results have been catastrophic. From 1999 to 2007, the number of legal gun owners fell by 44 percent, according to the South African Police Service (SAPS). Now, only 5 percent of South Africans legally own guns.

The ANC claimed that the FCA would not cause any job losses. Yet in 2004, just two years after the law went into effect, the number of gun stores plunged from 600 to 200.

The government originally claimed that administration of the new law would cost taxpayers 270 million Rand (about 34 million U.S. dollars). But by the time the act was implemented, the true cost had risen to about 263 million U.S. dollars. The millions wasted on the licensing bureaucracy could have been spent actually protecting citizens.

Blacks suffer most under the restrictive licensing program.

"The situation is running out of control," Abios Khoele, chairman of the Black Gun Owners Association of South Africa (, told the Sunday Times. "We blacks only want arms for self-defense--after all, crime is worst of all in the townships [segregated slums created by the apartheid regime]. The trouble is that the government is clearly targeting white gun owners and they really aren't the problem anymore. The extremist white right is dead and buried. It's criminals--murderers and rapists--who we have to defend our families against.

"For most of the apartheid period, blacks weren't allowed to own guns, and now a black government is taking away our right to self-defense. … The criminals are extremely well armed."

Khoele sees the disarmament of blacks as a ploy by a government that is afraid of poor people because of the government's failures on jobs, housing and services.

"White people want more firearms for sport, and black people only want one gun for self-defense," Khoele notes. "In our townships, it is not safe at all, especially for people who are taking early transport to work, when it's still dark and they're walking a long distance."

In truth, blacks do not enjoy the security of whites, who often live and work in enclaves with electric fences and high walls.

Undefended by the police, and not allowed by the government to obtain a gun license, many blacks are getting guns anyway, just to protect themselves and their families, observes Khoele.

"Most of the people, they've already started to buy illegal firearms," he told The New York Times in 2005. "Most of them are for self-defense, because they're living in areas where the police are unable to protect them."

The result of the FCA has been to help create a thriving underground market in illegal guns. On the streets, a small pistol can be bought for 25 U.S. dollars, or an AK-47 for 100 U.S. dollars. In contrast, a legal gun costs about 500-625 U.S. dollars, plus more than 125 U.S. dollars for fees and mandatory training.

One can understand why desperate, decent people would obtain a gun illegally. The police take hours to respond to burglary calls. Sometimes a burglary victim who has captured the burglar may be told to take the burglar to the police station himself, because the police cannot send someone out.

The gun prohibitionists maintain that legal gun ownership must be drastically reduced because legal guns are stolen by criminals. Yet since the FCA mandates that guns be stored in safes, there is no good rationale for banning guns.

Moreover, police claims that criminals' guns are stolen from law-abiding civilians are often conjectural. If a criminal's gun has an obliterated serial number, the police rarely conduct the difficult forensics of restoring the number. Instead, they just assert that the gun must have come from a licensed civilian owner.

The leading opposition party in South Africa is the Democratic Alliance (DA), which grew out of the anti-apartheid movement. The DA is a staunch critic of the ANC's campaign against gun owners. Dianne Kohler Barnard, the DA's spokeswoman on safety and security issues, rebuts the stolen-gun pretext for citizen gun bans. She points out that in 2008, the recovery rate for stolen guns was 106 percent--meaning that the police recovered more guns than were stolen, and cut into the pool of guns that had been stolen in previous years.

In contrast, the recovery rate for stolen police guns is only 15 percent. In 2008, there were 2,944 police guns reported stolen, and most of them remain in criminal hands. Similarly, of the guns owned by municipal governments, 8 percent (1,260) have been lost or stolen.

"The country is not awash with criminals holding civilian guns, but with criminals holding police guns," Kohler Barnard told Cape Argus last October. "We must just sit in our homes unarmed while they [criminals] come with police guns to kill us." Similarly, of the guns owned by municipal governments, eight percent (1,260) have been lost or stolen.

Kohler Barnard points out that many citizen's guns that were surrendered to the police have later been used in armed robberies, apparently after being sold by corrupt police.

SAPS says that from April 2006 to March 2007, there were 14,682 civilian firearms reported stolen. That's out of 2.5 million licensed firearm owners. In other words, one annual gun theft per 170 gun owners, which is a high rate by global standards.

Contrast that with the nearly 3,000 guns stolen from South Africa's police in a one-year period--one stolen gun per 47 officers. And then there are the many incidents in which citizens gave guns to the police for safekeeping--for example, when a citizen going on extended vacation wants to make sure a gun is not stolen from his home. When attempting to reclaim them later, citizens are often told their guns are "missing" (The Citizen, Sept. 21, 2007).

Simply put, the single largest supplier of criminals' guns in South Africa is the South African government. As one businessman told All Africa in 2006, "There are many cases where serving police officers and soldiers have been found among gang members in cash-in-transit heists and bank robberies."

Johannesburg's Sunday Times reported "… there is a huge leakage of weapons from the army and police, who often sell them at a profit. Another source [of criminals' guns] is homemade guns, turned out in township backyards."

Many South African criminals use automatic carbines (the R5 and predecessor models), which are the main small arms of the South African National Defense Force. These guns are not legal for civilian ownership.

Who owns the very biggest arsenal of unregistered, unlicensed guns? The African National Congress itself.

The ANC is thought to retain 100 tons of weapons and munitions, left over from its days as a revolutionary army. No one knows how many of these have been sold to criminals. The ANC has never explained why--15 years after it took power in a democratic election--it remains the only political party that has the capability to raise a private army.

During the war decades before 1994, both sides supplied huge quantities of arms to their allies and proxies, in the Republic of South Africa and in nearby countries. Now, many of these guns are flowing past South Africa's porous borders, to supply the criminal black market.

Khoele, of the Black Gun Owners' Association, told the Sunday Times, "The ANC smuggled huge numbers of guns into the country and after liberation made no effort to collect them back. Those same weapons are now often used in holdups."

It is South African governments, past and present, which have supplied the criminals' guns, and then blamed gun crime on law-abiding gun owners.

South Africa still has an independent judiciary. A decision this summer by the Western Cape High Court ordered the government to pay the legally required compensation for surrendered guns, although whether the government will do so remains uncertain.

It's important to note that Gun Free South Africa started its offensive against gun ownership by convincing businesses or other organizations to declare their property "gun free." The businesses certainly had the right to choose to do so, but they ended up becoming pawns in GFSA's long-term campaign to destroy all choice about gun ownership and to make the entire nation of South Africa "gun free." Or rather, "free" only of guns owned by law-abiding citizens.

Of course, we understand that "gun-free" zones often become killing zones. That is what happened in Rwanda in 1994, where the defenseless genocide victims were "gun free." That is what is happening today in Zimbabwe, where everyone except Robert Mugabe's criminal government and its allies is "gun free." That is what is happening right now in South Africa's impoverished townships, where robbers armed with government-supplied guns routinely murder their defenseless victims.

Is there hope for South Africa? Two-thirds of South Africans believe they have a right to own a gun (Financial Mail, Aug. 31, 2000), as indeed they do, since human rights are inherent even when governments refuse to respect those rights.

Although the ANC has been steadily consolidating power and removing constitutional checks and balances, South Africa for now remains a democracy, with a free printed press, uncensored Internet and strong opposition parties who stand up for the self-defense rights of South Africans of all races.

The ANC's Safety and Security Ministry spokesman, Trevor Bloem, told the Associated Press in 2006, "Gun control is here to stay across the world, including in the United States. Anything else would lead to chaos."

He is being proven wrong about the United States. And he may be wrong about South Africa, for it is the mean-spirited, dishonest and irresponsible gun-control policies of the ANC that are devastating the rule of law and leading to chaos in South Africa.

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