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Held to ransom: Kidnapping as part of South Africa's crime crisis

In May 2018, South Africa’s Directorate for Priority Crime Investigation, known locally as the ‘Hawks’, claimed that at least 20 businesspeople had been kidnapped over the preceding 18 months. At the time, the statistic seemed overwhelming. Up until that point, traditional kidnap for ransom cases were uncommon. Most abduction cases involved children and were largely concentrated in lowerincome communities. Yet, following the Hawks’ announcement, it was increasingly evident that a new kidnapping target profile had emerged with incidents targeting middle to upper-income businesspersons. Fast forward 18 months and while the frequency of kidnapping incidents has fluctuated, the underlying threat appears to be cemented in South Africa’s wider criminal landscape, writes Gabrielle Reid.


Of the 5,693 recorded abductions in South Africa in 2018/2019, only 3.6 percent comprised traditional kidnappings; the remainder involving child abduction or abduction as part of sexual assault and other crimes. While these cases likely remained  skewed towards more vulnerable sectors of society, there have been at least 10 high-profile cases this year which demonstrate the continued threat to businesspersons in South Africa. These figures are largely in line with the Hawks’ 2018 numbers, as again, several cases likely went unreported.


South Africa is facing a worsening security crisis. Government authorities are already warning that the latest crime statistics could  impact the upcoming tourism season between November and February, a dynamic likely to be exacerbated by international media  reporting on the state of South Africa’s violent crime. Meanwhile, a 2018 report by global think tank Institute for Economics and  Peace (IEP), showed that the costs of violent crime in South Africa amounts to 13 percent of Gross Domestic Product (GDP). On average, violent crime costs countries 8.8 percent of GDP. Although President Cyril Ramaphosa promised in his June State of the Nation address to halve violent crime levels in the country and increase police by 40 percent, it may be too little too late. It is increasingly clear that criminal kidnappings are now commonplace in South Africa. This activity is likely to become more sophisticated, benefiting from a wider criminal underworld that offers the means to sustain criminal activity, including kidnap for ransom, through the provision of intelligence, weapons, finance and personnel.

Crime stats South Africa


  • On 17 August, the Jordanian Ministry of Foreign Affairs announced that two Jordanian nationals, a businessman and his son, had been kidnapped for ransom in Pretoria. The kidnappers demanded an unspecified ransom for the release of the victims. They were released on 29 August; it has not been disclosed whether a ransom was paid to secure their release. 
  • On 29 July, three gunmen kidnapped a local businessman and his employer from their business premise in Durban. The two men were held for three days during which time they were reportedly tortured. They were released after a ransom was paid. 
  • On 22 July, unidentified assailants kidnapped and subsequently murdered two Zimbabwean businesspeople based in Johannesburg. Both victims owned logistics companies. It is currently unclear if the suspects made any ransom demands and investigations into the incident are ongoing.
  • On 30 May, armed assailants abducted the daughter of a prominent local businessperson, the CEO of a transport and logistics company, in Pinetown, Durban. The suspects demanded an undisclosed ransom to secure the victim’s release.

These kidnappings occurred amid several cases targeting lower-profile businesspersons, where ransom amounts of between ZAR 10,000 and ZAR 15,000 (USD 680 and USD 1,000) were demanded. Perpetrators include a combination of organised and semi-organised kidnapping syndicates and their target profiles are more or less prominent respectively. In several cases targeting lower- profile businesspersons, the victims were killed after the ransom had been paid.

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