The smoking gun
Sue de Groot speaks to author and criminologist Mark Shaw, who probably knows more about illicit weapons than all the world’s criminals put together, and whose revelatory new book might help stem the tide of violence in SA
Mark Shaw’s new book starts, appropriately enough, with a murder: the 2016 assassination of gangland lawyer Noorudien Hassan. This turned out to be “a critical piece of history in the violent contestations that had marred life on the Cape Flats for decades”, Shaw states in Give Us More Guns: How SA’s Gangs Were Armed.
Hassan was “the spider in a web, the centre of a network of communication, the holder of the critical purse strings, the indirect facilitator of the flows of drugs and guns”.
Investigating this and other murders, and most importantly tracking the guns, took Shaw “three years of research and over 200 interviews with gang members and bosses, gun dealers, state officials and many others”.
At the centre of the book, which makes the Nordic noir genre of crime novels look like a series of light romances, is a crime of almost unbelievable cynicism and magnitude.
A decade of sabotage
From around 2005 until his arrest in 2015, police colonel Christiaan Lodewyk Prinsloo sold more than 9,000 guns from the state armoury to gang bosses and other criminal organisations.
Prinsloo was sentenced to 18 years’ imprisonment in 2016 but was released on parole in October last year. His current whereabouts are unknown, but
Shaw assumes he is under heavy protection as he is expected to give evidence against his co-accused Irshaad Laher, the alleged gun-sale intermediary, in a trial that is yet to take place.
Shaw describes Prinsloo as a “gun expert, sworn protector of the public and illegal flogger of state property for cash”. Many would call him a coldblooded murderer by proxy.
There are many reasons for the delay in Laher’s trial, one being the time-consuming process of matching weapons supplied by Prinsloo to individual crime dockets. So far, police have officially tied the guns to 1,066 murders and 1,043 attempted murders in a six-year period. The actual number is likely to be far higher.
The deadly ingredient in gang rule
Shaw, who grew up on Johannesburg’s East Rand and studied African politics at Wits University (his PhD thesis was on violence in SA during the transition to democracy) is the director of the Global Initiative Against Transnational Organised Crime, usually abbreviated to “the GI”. This NGO employs 80 people in several offices around the world, mostly in countries such as SA where the scales of power are tipping towards criminal governance.
The GI essentially connects networks of people impacted by organised crime. As Shaw puts it: “Where gangs provide services, whether it’s on the Cape Flats or in Rio or in Lagos or Karachi or Mexico City, in all the places where we are active the patterns are the same, and the people who suffer the most are often excluded communities. Into that comes the issue of guns, because guns change the power dynamic.”
Speaking via Zoom from the GI’s head office in Austria, Shaw says his latest book, as entertaining as it might be for the crime enthusiast to read, is partly an attempt to drive a more productive discussion about the sorry state of policing in SA, particularly in response to an explosion in organised crime.
Time to rethink crime-fighting
“I think the nature of policing in SA is now in crisis,” he says. “One of the reasons is that it’s simply not set up to face the security challenges that we have. Policing is very reactive, rather than having a proactive strategic response. And linked to that reactive stance is a sense that the solution has been to seek out a militarised solution, upping the ante of policing. There will always be a space for that kind of policing, but it’s not fundamentally what brings success against hardcore organised crime.
“I think what’s needed in SA, and maybe the timing is now right, is a rethink of our approach. I don’t want to say that everything was right in the post-1994 phase but there was a real attempt to deliver service and accountability. I think a lot of the issues around accountability have been lost.”
It comes through very clearly in his book that the police in SA do not acknowledge the problems within their systems, whether it is in not picking up on the sale of decommissioned state guns and guns handed
in during public amnesties, or administrative chaos in the central firearms registry, a bureaucratic recipe for rising levels of corruption.
“Maybe it’s too much to ask for an apology, but these were state guns,” Shaw says. “Yes, Prinsloo stands at the centre of that but the systems around Prinsloo were also broken. I still can’t get my head around this idea that you could sell this enormous number of guns, and it’s the state itself generating violence in communities, the same state department that is meant to end them.”
This outrage was one of the things that drove Shaw to write the book. “The Prinsloo guns are very distinctive; they’ve been tampered with in a particular way. I saw one on a news site just the other day that had been seized. And the police acknowledge that those are state guns. So the cycle of violence where communities suffer — look at all the kids shot in crossfire — is created by the state, and the state and police’s refusal to acknowledge that they themselves are part of this really grates me. Out of that partly
comes the book.”
The Prinsloo case has been reported on, but Shaw is baffled as to the relatively minimal coverage this vile crime has received.
“This was a very cynical crime, I have to say, that he could sell decommissioned police weapons, plus weapons handed in during amnesties, to gangs, not thinking what the result would be. These are fragile, violent communities and the guns transformed the nature of gangsterism. They upped the violence significantly. All the evidence suggests that. Why would he not think that that would be the result?”
As shocking as it is, Shaw says there is a flipside to this, in that Prinsloo’s turning state witness might actually open avenues for better policing.
“This case, if it is taken forward and depending what his evidence is, could be a turning point in a way because those guns went everywhere.
“As the book recounts, gangs sold to each other and there’s now a gun market … so on the one hand it put gangsterism on steroids, but it might also provide an opportunity for doing something about it.”
Shaw compares the Prinsloo case and other failures of gun safety regulations with the broader issue of state capture.
“Related to the issue of frayed accountability is this defensiveness that has entered into the police,” he says.
“I don’t see any strategic thought, really, and I think that’s a bad place to be in; it’s reactive, from one firefight to the next. There doesn’t seem to be a bigger plan to say, ‘Well, guns are absolutely key to driving organised crime, let’s make sure we secure those.’
“The question is how can you expose the underlying criminal economy which makes all these individual incidents possible? Because in that exposure is where some of the solution lies.
“Every ounce of our effort should be in that process of prevention rather than just having uniformed people rushing to the next story of the next child shot in Hanover Park or wherever,” Shaw says.
“We need a much more strategic response to this generally, and we need an acknowledgement that the system is not working and then we can work on it together. We need better systems within the police, we need a different set of leadership, we need to recruit different sets of people … This is, I think, the message of the book.”
Apart from a vivid rendering of gangs and their territories in the Western Cape, Shaw ventures further afield into the not-unrelated issue of taxi violence in KwaZulu-Natal.
He has also spent much time with the few honest cops who have tried to investigate the pillage of state weaponry, and who soldiered on in secret without knowing which of their colleagues they could trust.
A hit that sums it all up
Shaw was already close to completing the book when anti-gang unit section head Lt-Col Charl Kinnear was assassinated outside his Cape Flats home in September 2020; one of the things the GI does is monitor assassinations by organised crime globally. These are frequently cases where prominent noncorrupt investigators are killed, says Shaw.
“Kinnear’s murder shows the full spectrum of the guns-to-gangs case. There’s the Prinsloo side, theft from the armoury, then there are the problems around the firearm registry and really top-level political people being able to bribe their way and obtain guns. I think Kinnear stumbled on that, as has been reported.
“Kinnear is a symbol, an individual example of the extraordinary challenges faced by those doing these investigations where you cannot trust anybody and where the police are, in a sense, broken. I hope that his death brings a change, like the Prinsloo case might. They are linked through guns and the leakage of guns in multiple ways. I hope it will turn out to be a transforming moment. Let’s see.”
As Shaw’s book shows, guns are key to the underworld. “They are status symbols but they are also tools of the trade. If you can starve the underworld of guns you can change things, you can reduce crime. But in fact the system is not doing that at all, and there are serious questions to be asked, and that’s the point of the book.”
There is a way out of the mess
I am trying to shine a focus on this in a way that is analytically useful. This is not something we just have to live with. It does not have to be like this
You might think that someone whose life is immersed in the study of heinous crime would be a bit bleak about the state of the world, but Shaw is adamant that there is hope.
“I guess my view is that I just don’t think it has to be like this in any of the countries where we as the GI are working. The problems are very similar — compromised states, corrupt officials, guns, drugs, wildlife — all of this mixed together and not necessarily well understood.
“I wouldn’t say I’m a crusader but I think what we are trying to do generally as the GI and what I am trying to do in the book is to shine a focus on this in a way that is analytically useful, that builds towards solutions, and in doing so gives people hope. This is not something we just simply have to live with. It does not have to be like this.”