South Africans Fight Rising Crime

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A growing crime rate has some South Africans concerned about their national leadership. Former anti-apartheid activist Xolela Mangcu started fighting crime after he became a victim of a car jacking there. He discusses his story.

MICHEL MARTIN, host:

From China, we're going to go now to an unfolding story in South Africa. Xolela Mangcu helped bring an end to apartheid in that country. And now the country faces a harsh new reality, one that is affecting South Africans from all walks of life - crime.

Two years ago, Xolela Mangcu was the victim of carjacking in a quiet, residential neighborhood. The experience opened his eyes to a lot of things, including the need for a new level of candor in South Africa about the country's problems. He told his story in a recent issue of the Washington Post Outlook section. Xolela Mangcu joins us now from Johannesburg. Thank you so much for joining us.

Mr. XOLELA MANGCU (Executive Chairman, Platform for Public Deliberation; Columnist, Business Day): Thank you for having me.

MARTIN: And I know it was a traumatic experience, but if you would just briefly tell us what happened.

Mr. MANGCU: I was talking on the cell phone, giving an interview to a radio station, which is what I often do here as a commentator. And before I knew it, there was loud banging on the windows of my car. I thought, initially, that it might be the police mistaking me, you know, for a stolen car. I've been a victim, anyway, of racial profiling in this country, so I thought there was something - until I realized, of course, that this was something different, that I was the victim of a carjack.

MARTIN: And these - the men were armed.

Mr. MANGCU: They were all armed. It was frightening, actually. They were all armed, and they took me to the backseat of my car. And with my head down, they put a gun to my head, drove around for about maybe an hour or an hour and a half, extracting all kinds of information from me. Mainly, they wanted my bank details. And interestingly enough, they had a gadget in the car, one of these is a card readers. You know, you swipe the card and they uploaded information from my credit cards and from my bankcards onto this machine. So it was clear that this was a high-level operation.

MARTIN: Why did they finally let you go?

Mr. MANGCU: The reason, I think, they let me go, frankly, is that these were not petty thugs. I think these are professionals who are just in the business of getting cards and extorting them. So it seems to me that what we're dealing with here was an organized criminal syndicate, not just petty everyday thugs on the street.

MARTIN: But did you think you were going to die?

Mr. MANGCU: Oh, yes, I thought I was - I've never been close to thinking that I was going to die, even during the days when we were fighting for freedom. I thought this was it. When I got to the bush and they made me come down on my knees, and with my head down, four of them - this was about like - this was about eight o'clock or nine o'clock in the evening, in the middle of the bush. I really thought they were going to leave me for dead.

MARTIN: You have a column - in addition to being the head of a think tank - you have a weekly column in South Africa's most prestigious daily paper, Business Day. But for two years, you did not write about this or speak about this publicly at all. Why not? And why did you finally decide to break your silence?

Mr. MANGCU: Well, you know, I did not want to speak about it because I did not want to seem like I'm feeding into the stereotype, the racist stereotype of a country that is ran by black people and is therefore falling apart. So there was a sense of a racial defensiveness on my part. But when I saw, you know, the leaders of my government sort of using that same rhetoric to actually dismiss crime as simply the concern of white people.

I even said, you know, I cannot keep quiet any longer, because the implications of keeping quiet are so much broader and so much more serious. When the head of state goes publicly to say this is a racial concern only for white people, I said, no, no, no. You know, I have a responsibility now to speak up, because many of my friends have gone through this.

I have lost very good friends who've been killed during carjacks. And almost every person I know - I'm talking about black people now - is a victim of robbery or some kind of - so it's important that we don't racialize this thing. We talk about it as a national challenge.

MARTIN: Now you were worried about speaking out about this. I think you were afraid of a backlash. Did that backlash come?

Mr. MANGCU: It didn't really generate as much insults and comments here as I have thought it would, which is, again, you know, part of the problem is how we shy away from discussing some of our problems. You know, we're a normal society. We're democracy, and we - black people in particular, we are the majority in this country. And I'm just saying that we need to be much more comfortable about talking about this thing, without fearing what white people are going to say to us.

MARTIN: Is the fear of talking about these things, what is that rooted in? Is that rooted in a concern about tourism? Is that rooted in a concern about what the international community not thinking well of the country? Or is it rooted in a sense that people are looking for South Africa to fail because it is now black-led?

Mr. MANGCU: You know, it is all of those things. And I do want to emphasize that, you know, we're not like running for cover every day from flying bullets that are all over the place. We're not a country in war. We're not a lawless country. We're actually a very stable country with a very strong security system. However, that doesn't mean that we had - we do not have problems. And we must speak openly about the problems that we have, so that those problems do not eat away at the stability that we have.

MARTIN: And finally, so you're saying that when you close your piece that - these are my words now - there might be a silver lining behind this cloud. And you say that perhaps it is this wickedly egalitarian nature of crime that will in the end unite everyone - rich and poor, black and white, men and women - because the country needs a common cause. Do you see any sign that this might be so?

Mr. MANGCU: It boils down to leadership. and I am saying that whoever becomes the new leader, and there's excitement now in this country about somebody called Tokyo Sexwale. If Tokyo Sexwale becomes a new president of South Africa, one of the things that many of us have been saying is that the ANC, it's tradition is that of non-racialism. And we have in the past prior for eight years of Mbeki's presidency gone back on that.

And I think that - and that's why everybody describes crime in racialized terms. And I think that what the ANC needs to do right now - or Sexwale, if he becomes a new president - is to go back to that theme of non-racialism and mobilize everybody in society, whether it's crime, whether it's HIV/AIDS, as -under the theme of non-racialism. That is the only way that we're going to build goodwill, both internally in South Africa and internationally. So we're not at a point, really, where we are defeated by this problem, but it just leads the big issue.

MARTIN: Well, good luck to you.

Mr. MANGCU: Well, thank you. It's still a wonderful country.

MARTIN: I have no doubt. Xolela Mangcu…

Mr. MANGCU: Yes.

MARTIN: …is the executive chairman of the Platform for Public Deliberation. That is a think tank in Johannesburg. He is also a columnist for Business Day. Thank you so much for speaking with us.

Mr. MANGCU: Thank you.

(Soundbite of music)

MARTIN: Coming up: as anti-war crusader Cindy Sheehan steps away from the public arena, we hear from other gold star mothers about how losing a child in combat led them to activism.

Ms. ELAINE JOHNSON (Mother, Army Specialist Darius Jennings): Our kids are not numbers. Our kids were beloved human beings with great potential, and we miss them terribly and they died for nothing.

MARTIN: That's next.

(Soundbite of music)

MARTIN: I'm Michel Martin. You're listening to TELL ME MORE from NPR News.

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