The kidnapping of business people for ransom seems to be on the rise in South Africa, driven by highly organised professional syndicates as well as inexperienced copycats, says crime activist Yusuf Abramjee.
Abramjee participated in a panel discussion about these crimes hosted by the National Press Club in Pretoria yesterday. 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. He dealt with 15 kidnappings for ransom last year. In three of the cases, ransom collectively amounted to more than R50 million. One of the most recent and prominent cases was that of 76-year-old businessperson 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 yesterday saying he is still very traumatised. Abramjee said the kidnappers burnt Carrim’s Mercedez-Benz, which was worth about 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 in to the tune of R50 million.” Businessperson Zhaun Ahmed was earlier kidnapped in Cape Town and released after a few weeks. Abramjee said Ahmed denied having paid any ransom, but indications are that up to R20 million could have changed hands.
Abramjee said initially the victims were mostly Indian business people who are seen to be rich, but this has since spread to Pakistani, Chinese, Bangladeshi and Zimbabwean business people. 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 businessperson was taken from his shop. His family was unable to pay the R1 million ransom and paid R70 000, after which the man was killed. He said in three cases the kidnappers demanded the ransom be paid outside of South Africa in the Middle or Far East. He called on police to follow the money trail. Abramjee also questioned the role of “hawala” brokers or money changers in the channelling of ransom money.
South African Police Service (Saps) head of hostage negotiators, Colonel 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.
Professor Gérard Labuschagne, director of L&S Threat Management, said Nigeria, Somalia and Mozambique are the kidnapping for ransom hot spots in Africa.