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The Numbers are in: Kidnap for Ransom in South Africa

South Africa has experienced a significant increase in reported kidnappings, with targets now including middle to upper-income businesspersons. Gabrielle Reid investigates the nature of these attacks and how South Africa’s worsening criminal underworld has offered the perfect environment for the growth of this lucrative crime.

On 1 May, South Africa’s Directorate for Priority Crime Investigation, known locally as the ‘Hawks’, claimed that at least 20 businesspeople had been abducted by alleged kidnapping syndicates over the preceding 18 months. The figure marks a substantial increase in kidnap for ransom cases in the country and has raised concerns that South Africa is fast becoming sub-Saharan Africa’s next kidnapping hotspot. 

Although annual crime statistics from the South African Police Service (SAPS) demonstrate an overall 1.8 percent decline in crime for the 2016/2017 financial year, violent crime, specifically homicide and armed robbery, have increased by 1.8 and 6.4 percent respectively. In addition, organised crimes, such as cash-in-transit heists, rose by 10.9 percent. While kidnap for ransom is not recorded as a standalone infraction, the crime is clearly on the rise as well.


Crime rates are historically high in South Africa but traditional kidnap for ransom cases have been uncommon. The majority of abduction cases have previously involved children and were largely concentrated in lower-income communities. Yet, since 2016, there have been numerous reports of kidnappings targeting middle to upper-income businesspersons. Initially, kidnapping syndicates, with reported links to Mozambique, Pakistan and Bangladesh, targeted wealthy foreign businesspeople travelling to or resident in the country. The victims were typically foreign nationals of Asian and African descent or were local residents of Asian origin. However, this profile has now broadened with the number of cases averaging three incidents a month. 

Kidnapping incidents involving businesspersons are typically criminally motivated. Perpetrators have demonstrated ties to wider international syndicates in addition to smaller, less sophisticated operations. Ransom demands often amount to between ZAR 12.4 million and ZAR 74.7 million (USD 1 million and USD 6 million); however, these demands can be negotiated downwards as ransom payments typically average between ZAR 100,000 and ZAR 200,000 (USD 8,000 and USD 16,000). In April, for example, a polish national, identified as Barbara Wadolowska, was kidnapped outside a prominent hotel in Sandton, Johannesburg. Her kidnappers demanded a ransom of approximately ZAR 29 million (USD 2.3 million) for her release. Wadolowska was released three days later near Johannesburg’s O.R. Tambo International Airport after a portion of the ransom was paid. Similar cases have been reported in Pretoria, Durban and Cape Town.

Overall, kidnappings are more prominent in the Western Cape and Kwa-Zulu Natal (KZN) provinces; however, it is clear the crime is growing in Gauteng. In a concerning incident in April, Pakistan national and head of an alleged kidnapping synidicate, Majeed ‘Manjla’ Khan, was reportedly assassinated in central Johannesburg in an attack attributed to an alleged turf war between two rival kidnapping syndicates in the city. Such targeted violence demonstrates the growing competition between gangs within this lucrative criminal sector. Furthermore, the large rewards available through kidnappings are likely to attract other already-established criminal gangs operating in South Africa to conduct their own targeted attacks.

Such targeted violence demonstrates the growing competition between gangs within this lucrative criminal sector.


The organised crime underbelly of South Africa is well documented. Numerous syndicates, engaged in various criminal activities, including weapons, narcotics and human trafficking, as well as cash-in-transit heists, operate with ease in the country. In the past four years, organised criminal operations have become more brazen. Indicative of this, on 17 May, approximately 10 men armed with an array of weapons, including assault rifles, attacked two cash-in-transit vehicles in a coordinated assault in eastern Johannesburg; the assailants were able to detonate two explosive devices to access the vehicles, while additional gunmen cordoned off the area. The incident was a slick operation that demonstrated clear training on the part of the gunmen and evidence of strong financial backing given that the attackers arrived to the site in at least three luxury SUV vehicles. This criminal underworld not only offers a conducive breeding ground for other illicit activity, including kidnapping for ransom, but also the means to sustain these operations through the provision of intelligence, weapons, finance and personnel. 

Yet, it is not only criminally motivated kidnappings that have come to the fore in South Africa. In February, three suspects allegedly linked to Islamic State (IS) were tied to the kidnapping of a UK-South African couple in Vryheid, KZN. The incident prompted the UK government to warn against potential IS attacks in the country, including the potential kidnapping of foreign nationals. The victims have been identified as Rodney and Rachel Saunders; Rodney Saunders’ remains were subsequently discovered in the Tugela River, KZN. Four suspects have since appeared in the Verulam Magistrates Court, the same municipal area of a recent suspected terror attack at a local mosque. The incidents have raised concerns over South Africa’s vulnerability to Islamist militancy. Yet, despite the perpetrators alleged ties to IS, the kidnapping still appears to have been financially motivated, with approximately USD 57,000 drawn from the Saunders’ bank accounts following their disappearance. Nevertheless, the overlap between extremist agendas and growing criminality is significant. 


In response to the rise in kidnappings, the SAPS and the specialised unit, the Hawks, established a national task team in 2017. The task team has enjoyed some early success. Shortly after the Wadolowska incident, police arrested seven members of a suspected kidnapping syndicate in raids on three properties in southern Johannesburg, near the Eldorado Park area. During one of the raids, police rescued an individual who had been kidnapped several days prior. Moreover, according to media reports, the SAPS has 365 trained hostage negotiators nationally, who hold a 98 percent success rate in securing the release of victims. 

However, the SAPS, the Hawks and South Africa’s domestic security apparatus may not be sufficiently equipped to stem the tide. It is increasingly apparent that South Africa’s intelligence capabilities, including the SAPS’ Crime Intelligence (CI) division, have been hollowed out as a result of widespread corruption. South Africa was without a National Police Commissioner between 2015 and November 2017, for example, until the appointment of Lieutenant- General Khehla Sitole, as his predecessor was dismissed amid allegations of corruption related to an Independent Police Investigative Directorate probe. Meanwhile, the portfolio of the Ministry of Police has changed hands several times in light of controversial cabinet reshuffles over the past two years, allowing for numerous policy challenges and inefficiency to slip through the cracks. This has left South Africa’s domestic security apparatus largely unmatched against sophisticated syndicates. 

Kidnappings in South Africa


Criminally motivated kidnappings in South Africa are here to stay in the short term at least. Although the syndicates responsible for these kidnappings are organised crime groups embedded in the targeted communities, other foreign nationals visiting South Africa are likely to be targeted as syndicates become more rehearsed and brazen in their activities. In addition to maintaining vigilance from more traditional crime in South Africa, both long-term and short term visitors to the country will now need to implement greater preparedness against the kidnapping threat, including managing their anonymity and reviewing their personal security as South Africa becomes an increasingly challenging operating environment for travelers.

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