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South African Assaults Heighten Crime Debate Before Parliament Opening


Crime in South Africa, as in many countries, is a daily occurrence. But a series of attacks on prominent citizens, following some dismissive remarks by senior officials, has intensified an emotional national political debate over the crime issue as the government prepares Friday to open its parliamentary year. Correspondent Scott Bobb reports from Johannesburg.

South African President Thabo Mbeki delivers his annual state of the nation speech Friday to the opening session of parliament. And calls are coming from various sectors of society for him to make a strong statement on the high level of violent crime in the country.

The Solidarity trade union has launched a campaign of e-mails to the president asking him to declare crime a national crisis.

Solidarity spokesman, Jaco Kleynhans, says in the first 48 hours his organization received more than 17,000 letters.

"South Africans are really angry, sad, and disturbed by the levels of crime in our country, but they are also positive in the letters that people write to the president," he said. "They tell him about things that they believe need to be done to address the very high levels of crime in South Africa."

The campaign gained momentum after Mr. Mbeki, in an interview on national television, said that crime, though a serious problem, had declined steadily since the end of apartheid 13 years ago.

"Nobody can show that the overwhelming majority of these, 40 million, 50 million South Africans think that crime is out of control. Nobody can, because it is not true," he said.

President Mbeki's spokesman, Mukoni Ratshitanga, says the government is engaged on a daily basis in the fight against crime.

"The fight against crime continues with or without an e-mail campaign, which in our view is counterproductive because what it does is, it polarizes the atmosphere rather than partnering [with] the government in the fight against crime," he said.

Last year, South Africa recorded 18,000 murders, 55,000 rapes and 120,000 incidents of violent crime. The country's crime rate is 50 times that of Great Britain and 13 times that of the United States.

Public attention has been heightened in recent weeks because of attacks on prominent entertainers, intellectuals, and businessmen, several of whom died.

Some officials say privately that the uproar over crime has mostly come from the country's white minority, which is anxious to discredit the government. Solidarity's union members are mostly white.

But as the debate has expanded to radio call-in shows and letters to newspapers, many black South Africans have voiced similar concerns and noted that by far the greatest number of victims of violent crime are black.

One of the country's largest banks, First National Bank, this week called off a $3 million campaign of newspaper advertisements containing petitions similar to those of the trade union. The bank came under pressure from some business leaders, but others in the community subsequently spoke out in support of the effort.

The South African Tourism Services Association this week published a survey in which 75 international foreign tour wholesalers said they would send 50 percent more tourists to South Africa if crime were not a factor in the choice of destination.

And the U.N. Children's Fund, in a preview of its annual report due out next week, said violence against South Africa's women and children had reached unacceptable levels.

As a result, many are waiting for Mr. Mbeki's speech on Friday and activists are promising to intensify their campaign if they find his position to be too soft on crime.