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South Africa turns to Google in bid to curb crime

December 1, 2023

A spate of attacks on drivers using GPS navigation systems prompted South Africa to ask Google Maps to exclude a notorious crime hotspot. The intervention comes as the authorities battle to remedy widespread crime.

Two women in hazmat suits
Four Bulgarian nationals were shot dead in a car in Cape Town in May 23, in suspected gang-related violence Image: NIC BOTHMA/REUTERS

Content warning: Disturbing details follow below.

An hour after he landed in South Africa in November, Walter Fischel was shot in the face by robbers. The 55-year-old US tourist had been following the directions on a global positioning system (GPS) in the hired car he was driving from Cape Town International Airport to his rental accommodation in Simons Town.

The shortest route on the GPS had led Fischel to Nyanga township. There, he later told journalists, his car was surrounded by a group of men who shot him and made off with  the car, his money and passport.

In August, Kar Hao Teoh, a British surgeon, was gunned down in the area while using the route to avoid roads closures. Nyanga on the Cape Flats in Cape Town and the areas that surrounding it are notorious for violent crime.

In the wake of the attacks, the authorities asked Google Maps to remove the crime hot spot from its GPS options.

Silver Google logo on a black background
Image: Jakub Porzycki/picture alliance

High crime levels

Google South Africa Director Alistair Mokoena says authorities requested the deletion of the Nyanga crime hotspot from the company's GPS routes. 

"There is a specific portion of that route that passes through Nyanga that's deemed unsafe by the authorities, who said 'You as Google, are you able to make sure that we don't recommend that particular portion of the route?" Mokoena told DW.

According to police, there are about 58 such crime hotspots across the country, he said. Google can however only remove a location from the GPS when authorities put in a request.

Cyril Ramaphosa und Bheki Cele
South African President Cyril Ramaphosa (Left) and Police Minister Bheki Cele pictured at a police ceremony in 2018Image: Getty Images/AFP/R. Bosch

The latest official crime statistics show that 78 people are killed in South Africa on average every day and 100 women are raped every 24 hours. 

Minister of Police Bheki Cele told journalists that over 10,000 rapes were reported between July and September this year. Many of the thousands of murders over the same period involved robbers with firearms.

"Despite the overall drop in the country's murder rate between July and September this year, 6,945 people were murdered in South Africa in three months. That's why we can't take comfort from the reduction. We can't say we have arrived. We can't say we have done all the best. These figures are too high," Cele said.

The handcuffed hands of two people
South African police have a heavy caseload including violent in which people from other parts of Africa are targeted by mobsImage: Kim Ludbrook/dpa/picture alliance

CCTV and security guards in church

In November, Pastor Dwayne Gordon was shot dead when robbers attacked congregants during an evening church service at the Eagle Christian Centre in the Johannesburg suburb of Newlands in Gauteng Province.

Authorities in the province recently introduced a new security structure in which "peace wardens" support police operations.

Churches in many places have deployed their own CCTV surveillance systems and armed guards too.

Bishop Kelly Tsedu Muntswu of the Shiloh Family Church in Johannesburg wants the authorities to do more. 

"Bring the wardens to help churches. They are everywhere. They have got fast cars. They are compassionate. They are passionate. We see them,” Muntswu told DW.

Criminals are outpacing police

"We have seen crime increase quite significantly since 2012. It's stabilized in the most recent quarterly crime statistics, but it's still at extremely elevated levels," Guy Lamp, a criminologist told DW.

South African police are being outpaced by criminals, he said: "They [police] haven't lost the war on crime but certainly they are not winning it."

A man talking on a phone with people in hazmat suits in the background
The scene of a mass shooting in Soweto, Johannesburg in July 2022Image: Ihsaan Haffejee/AFP/Getty Images

In Gauteng, residents say new measures such as "peace wardens" have brought little comfort as criminals continue to terrorize communities.

The army is meanwhile expected to join the fight against crime. President Cyril Ramaphosa recently authorized the deployment of 3,300 soldiers to help the police deal with armed illegal miners who are also causing havoc in mining communities.

Scouring the earth for precious scraps

The new continenge of soldiers are join to about 900 others who were deployed in December 2022 to help police key infrastructure countrywide — and facilities of the power utility Eskom in particular.

"We already see that the support they lend to the police is quite valuable and is appreciated, not only by the police but the citizens of our country. Whenever there are safety and security challenges, they have always asked for soldiers to support the police," Ramaphosa told parliament in November.

19 killed in South Africa bar shootings

Edited by: Benita van Eyssen

DW correspondent Thuso Khumalo in Johannesburg.
Thuso Khumalo Thuso Khumalo is a multimedia and broadcast journalist based in Johannesburg, South Africa.@thusokhums