The kidnapping of business people for ransom seems to be on the rise in South Africa and is driven by highly organised professional syndicates as well as inexperienced copycats, says anti-crime activist Yusuf Abramjee.
Abramjee was participating in a panel discussion about these crimes hosted by the National Press Club in Pretoria on Thursday.
He said surviving victims and their families generally don’t want to talk about their experiences out of fear for their safety. As a result, information about the number of events and amounts of ransom demanded and/or paid is difficult to obtain.
Personally, he dealt with 15 kidnappings for ransom last year. In three of these cases, ransom collectively amounted to more than R50 million.
One of the most recent and prominent cases was that of 76-year-old businessman Omar Carrim, owner of Home Hyper City in Pretoria, who was kidnapped on August 3 last year outside his business. He was released in December after being held, handcuffed and shackled, for 137 days.
The family did not comment afterwards on whether ransom was paid. They sent a message to the briefing on Thursday saying he is still very traumatised.
Abramjee said the perpetrators burnt out Carrim’s Mercedes-Benz vehicle, which could have been worth R600 000. “They could have gone and sold it. They don’t want to leave a trail of evidence,” he said. “Out of three kidnapping cases, and I’m not going to mentions which three, I know the gangs have cashed out R50 million.”
Businessman Zhaun Ahmed was earlier kidnapped in Cape Town and released after a few weeks. Abramjee said Ahmed denied paying any ransom, but indications are that up to R20 million could have changed hands.
Abramjee said initially the victims were mostly Indian businessmen who are seen to be rich, but this has since spread to Pakistani, Chinese, Bangladeshi and Zimbabwean businessmen.
Over and above the highly professional syndicates, he says there are also “copycats” who are less experienced kidnappers.
After a kidnapping over the holidays, the police made arrests and recovered a R6 million ransom. Last week a Bangladeshi businessman was taken from his shop. His family was unable to pay the R1 million ransom and paid R70 000, whereafter he was killed.
He said that in three cases, the kidnappers demanded that the ransom be paid outside of South Africa in the Middle or Far East. He called on police to follow the money trail and said crime intelligence is crucial in fighting this crime.
Abramjee also questioned the role of “hawala” brokers or money changers in the channeling of ransom money.
South African Police Service (SAPS) head of hostage negotiators Col Ernst Strydom expressed the organisation’s concern that people live and do business in fear.
He said kidnapping for ransom was uncommon until recently. He called on victims or their families to report all cases.
The SAPS has 365 trained hostage negotiators spread over all provinces and placed at various police stations.
Strydom says SAPS hostage negotiators have a 98% success rate. They deal with a variety of cases over and above kidnapping for ransom.
Prof Gérard Labuschagne, director of L&S Threat Management, said Nigeria, Sudan and Mozambique have been the kidnapping-for-ransom hotspots in Africa. The concern is that this is spreading from Mozambique to South Africa, he said.
While South Africa is not yet a hotspot, it could become one unless action is taken now, he said.
He said currently hostage negotiation is a secondary task for those trained police officers and called for specialised negotiators.
Labuschagne said paying a ransom is good and well to get the victim released, but it encourages kidnappers to continue with a very profitable enterprise. Against that background, insurance for this type of crime is a double-edged sword. Kidnappers could target companies they know have such insurance and should pay up more readily.
Independent crime analyst Dr Chris de Kock, said the last official kidnapping statistics released by the SAPS were in 2014/15, when 4 252 kidnappings occurred.
Only a small fraction of these are however the typical kidnapping of a business person for ransom. It is therefore impossible to determine how many such cases occur, he said.
What to do in a kidnapping-for-ransom situation:
– Report to the local police and escalate if necessary;
– Record phone calls from kidnappers;
– Stay away from social media;
– Take guidance from hostage negotiators regarding general media coverage.