Newsreal: Fighting street crime -- on the Internet

A vicious attack in Johannesburg galvanizes a worldwide response.

Published June 4, 1997 7:00PM (EDT)

the No. 1 Web site in South Africa is not about the beautiful countryside, the miraculous overthrow of apartheid or the glory of Nelson Mandela. It's about "a brutal act of violence" that has left its white victim "battling to breathe." The site has been up for just a month but it already brims with thousands of responses to "Share Your Tragedy" and "Suggestions." "Messages of Support" have poured in from across the world.

"We just wanted our friends from all over the country to leave their own get well messages," said Irnest Kaplan, who found his elder brother Rob, 34, near death in his Johannesburg home on May 1. Rob, who ran a computer training center for blacks, had been shot twice in the chest, stabbed, beaten, pistol-whipped and tortured for hours with a household heating iron by three Zulu-speaking robbers seeking the keys to a nonexistent safe.

"Our intention now," said Irnest, who works for The Internet Solution, one of South Africa's largest Web development and server companies, "is to have a meeting with Mr. Mandela, show him the responses and demand radical action ... We hope to leverage the Internet."

The Kaplan incident was typical of the horrendous street crime that has enveloped South Africa. Carjackings, shootings, knifings and rapes have become so common that many newspapers have simply stopped reporting them unless the details are particularly grotesque -- a burning, for example, or a machete maiming. But Kaplan's Web site immediately attracted attention. In its first week it racked up 120,000 hits; in its second week, 1 million hits.

So far President Mandela's office has remained silent, no doubt aware of the racial dimension of the issue. The Kaplans are white and those complaining most vocally about violent crime are white (as are the vast majority of the estimated 500,000 South Africans who access the Web). And the alleged perpetrators are mostly black. Still, the tragic stories related on Kaplan's site bear the heartfelt ring of individuals who have lost someone close following a horrific incident. They almost always involve a high degree of gratuitous violence. Gang rape is a growing phenomenon. "Things have become so bad that our close circle of friends have even discussed with their husbands and children how they would like them to handle the situation if they were raped," went one posting.

The "Suggestions" page has quickly outgrown the "share your tragedy" posts. "Leave this hellhole of a country," one of the messages, is echoed throughout the thread. "I would tell anyone to leave the country now," Ivan Wilson, a programmer who moved from Johannesburg to Wyoming, said in one post. Others urge blanketing Mandela's office or the ruling African National Congress Web site with e-mails.

Are these merely post-apartheid expressions of white racism? No, says former New York Police Commissioner William Bratton, who was asked to come up with a crime reduction proposal for South Africa's minister of police. "The situation seems to be getting worse ... The climate of fear has meant so many guns and people tend to shoot first. We did not meet a single person who did not know a victim of serious crime." The former Lebanese ambassador, who fled the country after his house was broken into once too often, was quoted as saying that Beirut, even in its worst days, was safer than Johannesburg today.

If the Kaplan site can't solve the crime problem, another South African Web site can help you find a good bodyguard. Bhekikhaya can also review your security setup -- Johannesburg's houses usually have eight-foot walls and electronic gates -- but mostly they ensure that traveling businessmen get safely from one place to another, explained Larry Erasmus, a former cop who heads the three-man protection operation, before hurrying off to visit a friend who had been shot in the face during a robbery.

The exodus of whites has grown since the advent of black majority rule, and crime is usually cited as the most compelling reason. As you read through Kaplan's site you get the feeling that for the average white South African, the guerrilla war of the apartheid era is not over -- it simply moved to their backyards, to their roads, stoplights, parking lots and to any place where they or their families are a target. Still, says Bratton, "They shouldn't lose optimism." Crime can be lowered, he says, but it requires something he says the Mandela government has so far not shown: "leadership."

By Alan Brody

Alan Brody has written for Newsday, New Media Magazine and Juluka, a South African-American newsletter, among other publications.

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