Features | International

South Africa’s deadly love affair with guns

For the last six years, Penson Mlotshwa has been carrying a gun with him wherever he goes in the South African city of Johannesburg. To the shops, restaurants and even the gym.

His gun has become an extension of him as the country battles record levels of crime.

"I'm not a fortune teller - I never know when I will be attacked," the YouTube content creator told the BBC.

"Unfortunately, I've had to use my gun multiple times to protect myself," he sighs, explaining how a man wanting his wallet pulled a knife on him after dinner one night.

He drew his gun and made the mugger hand over the pocket knife, which he threw in the gutter. He did not fire the weapon.

Mr Mlotshwa says his guns - he would not disclose how many he owned - are strictly for protection, a job he feels the police and government have failed dismally at.

Johannesburg resident Lynette Oxley agrees and says such dangers must be faced head-on.

Lynette Oxley from Girls on Fire says she would rather buy a new gun than a pair of shoes

She has set up an initiative to train women to protect themselves through gun ownership.

"I'd rather buy a new gun, than a pair of shoes," the 57-year-old Johannesburg resident, who owns 12 firearms, told the BBC.

Her organisation, Girls on Fire, mostly helps women who have been raped, attacked, robbed, or experienced some level of violence. The country's rate of sexual violence is among the highest in the world.

One woman joined up after her husband was shot in front of her - she was pregnant at the time - and her six-year-old child during a home robbery.

"People are realising that we are on our own," says Ms Oxley, a gun instructor.

"Gun culture in South Africa is about self-defence and necessity."

South African law states that most people with a gun licence can carry a firearm if it is concealed.

There are more than 2.7 million legal gun owners in South Africa, according to a 2021 survey by Gun Free South Africa (GFSA) - roughly 8% of the adult population.

When it comes to the war against crime, South Africa's police do appear to be losing. The murder rate in the country reached a 20-year high and guns are the weapon of choice.

Adele Kirsten, the director of GFSA, told the BBC of her concerns that crime was not only increasing in South Africa, but the "nature of gun violence" was changing.

Mass shootings and assassinations are becoming a "feature" of South Africa, she says.

Last year the country was rocked when 10 members of the same family were shot dead in an attack on their home near the city of Pietermaritzburg. The youngest victim was only 13 years old.

Many of these crimes are carried out by illegal firearms - of which there are some 2.35 million in circulation, according to GFSA.

One of the sources of these illegal guns is the very institution meant to protect civilians - the police.

This was illustrated by the infamous case of ex-police officer Christiaan Prinsloo.

Between 2007 and 2015, he sold about 2,000 guns to gangs. These firearms have been linked to more than 1,000 murders and the deaths of 89 children.

To fill this security vacuum more people than ever are taking their safety into their own hands.

In South Africa for a person to get a gun licence they need to be over the age of 21, go through extensive training, do multiple tests and show proof of mental competency.

It can be a long and tedious process.

Despite this, over the past decade the number of gun-licence applications has quadrupled, according to an investigation by South African news site News24.

This is a big worry for Ms Kirsten, who wants fewer such weapons on the streets: "When you reduce gun availability, you reduce gun deaths."

Gideon Joubert, a firearms consultant, told the BBC that the rise in gun ownership was a natural consequence of the lack of security.

"Owning a gun is choosing to be an active participant in your own rescue," he says.

The 38-year-old, who also is active in the sports shooting sector, says the relationship South Africans have with their firearms is "complex and multifaceted".

"I see a gun as the ultimate representation of my ability as a free citizen to take the final responsibility for my own safety," he says.

Many South Africans feel the police are failing to protect them

Gun culture is influenced by the violent history of the country, which was under white-minority rule until 1994. Black people could not legally obtain guns until 1983.

European colonisers brought guns to the country in the early 1600s. Afrikaners, white descendants of Dutch settlers, adopted a unique frontier gun-owning identity, that is still present today.

In the 1980s the Soviet bloc sent thousands of AK-47s to anti-apartheid groups, and it became a symbol of liberation.

Legal gun ownership jumped by 40% between 1986 and 1996 at a time of instability and uncertainty in the country, according to a report by GFSA.

Much of this was driven by the white minority's fear of Nelson Mandela's African National Congress (ANC) taking power, the GFSA says.

The ANC has now been in power for 30 years - and in elections in May could lose its outright majority in parliament for the first time since apartheid ended.

People are once again reaching for firearms, but the face of gun culture has slightly shifted.

Mr Joubert says the typical South African gun owner used to be "mid-30s, white, male, and generally Afrikaans". Now it is more "diverse".

Women are increasingly turning to guns in a bid to protect themselves

In 2014 women made up 19% of gunowners in South Africa, according to a report conducted by the policy and research unit of South Africa's Civilian Secretariat for Police Service.

Though the type of people who own guns may be changing, Ms Kirsten believes vestiges of the colonial gun mentality remain, especially among older white males.

"They think their gun is the last thing between them and the 'Wild West'," she says, a reference to their lack of faith in the black-majority government.

It is clear that more people are turning to private security companies, instead of the police, for protection.

In the last decade private security firms have increased by more than 40% because of demand, according to a Private Security Industry Regulatory Authority (PSIRA) report cited by a recent parliamentary committee.

One person who has taken to heart the need to protect herself is Tzu-Hui Chang, a 25-year-old Taiwanese-born South African.

She told the BBC the first time she saw her father with a gun was when they moved to the country when she was a toddler.

"He would have it strapped to his chest every time he picked me up from kindergarten," she says.

The constant fear of attack forced the family to adopt South Africa's gun culture, despite coming from a country that is averse to firearms.

Ms Chang says she is in the process of trying to get her gun licence.

"If I didn't live in South Africa, I wouldn't even consider getting a gun," she says.

For Mr Mlotshwa owning a gun in South Africa is a no-brainer. He fondly refers to his firearms as his "monsters" who will always be there to protect his family.

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DISCLAIMER: The Views, Comments, Opinions, Contributions and Statements made by Readers and Contributors on this platform do not necessarily represent the views or policy of Multimedia Group Limited.