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South Africa Moves to Crack Down on Violent Crime - 2002-11-19

After two attacks on British tourists in South Africa over the last three-weeks, the Pretoria government is moving to crack down on criminal gangs in an effort to protect its tourism industry.

First, robbers shot and killed a 60-year-old British woman and seriously wounded her husband in their hotel room.

Then a few days ago, four men abducted a British tourist and her South African friend. They repeatedly raped the woman and stabbed her friend in the leg. The ordeal ended when their vehicle overturned. A passing motorist stopped to help, and the hijackers shot him in the head, killing him.

South Africa has one of the highest violent crime rates in the world. Hardly a day goes by without reports of a brutal rape or vicious murder. But it has traditionally been seen as a fairly safe destination for tourists, who are not usually targeted.

That has changed in recent weeks, and the acting-British High Commissioner Andy Sparkes, says Britain is thinking about issuing a stronger travel warning to would-be visitors.

"We have to balance giving sensible advice, which maximizes the safety of our citizens with a wish not to be alarmist, and prevent our citizens or others from coming to enjoy what would otherwise be a wonderful and good-value holiday in this beautiful country," Commissioner Sparkes said.

That is important because tourism is one of the top five "growth industries" in South Africa. Nearly six million foreigners visited the country last year, spending more than $1 billion. South African officials fear bad publicity during the recent attacks will hurt this vital sector of the economy.

The head of South African Tourism, Cheryl Carolus, says until the recent string of incidents, no British tourist had been attacked here in two years. But she says even one incident is one too many.

Ms. Carolus says she does not intend to allow what she calls "a handful of thugs" to create the impression that South Africa is not safe for tourists.

"The incidents have been shocking, and I do not want to minimize that. They have been very bad, a lot of, by anybody's standards, disproportionate violence. But they are still rare incidents," Mr. Sparkes of the British High Commission agreed. "And we put it in the context of six million visitors to South Africa a year, of which 300,000 are Brits, the vast majority of whom just have an excellent and positive experience in this country."

Mr. Sparkes says South African authorities are taking the situation very seriously, and he emphasizes that the police have caught the four men suspected of carrying out the most recent attack on the British woman, her friend, and the passing motorist.

Ms. Carolus says the quick arrests show that South Africans will no longer tolerate such behavior.

South Africa's violent crime rate has inspired some unique responses. One entrepreneur has started a service that uses cell phone text messages to alert subscribers about crimes in their areas.

The founder of the service, Andre Snyman, calls it e-blockwatch. Subscribers report crimes in progress to the e-blockwatch call center, which then alerts both the police and other members in the area.

E-blockwatch has just introduced a special service designed just for tourists, called "Operation Cuppa Tea." Mr. Snyman says he hopes to sign visitors up for the service when they arrive at the airport.

"Because of this incident that happened in South Africa recently, where the British tourist was raped, we are now extending it out through all the tourists that are arriving in South Africa," he said. "And we hope we will be able to register them at Johannesburg International Airport, give them the call center number, and if they have any problem, we will get the local community to go and help them, and give them a cup of tea, and make sure everything is fine with them."

Mr. Sparkes, Ms. Carolus, and Mr. Snyman say the best way to make sure tourists are safe in South Africa is to reduce the overall levels of violent crime.

Mr. Snyman says the police need all the help they can get right now, and he thinks the answer is getting the community involved.

The Acting-British High Commissioner Sparkes, adds that British and U.S. law-enforcement officials are training and equipping the South African police to help improve their ability to fight violent crime.