Warning over ‘express’ kidnapping in South Africa

 ·4 Jun 2024

Insurers warn that a new form of ‘express’ kidnapping is making waves in South Africa, where criminals target anyone and change their demands depending on how quickly they think they can get something out.

According to South African crime stats data, there were over 4,500 cases of kidnapping in one quarter in 2023, making South Africa one of the global hotspots for this kind of crime.

“There are only six countries in the world that have higher kidnapping and ransom incidents than South Africa,” said Richard Hood, CEO of insurance broker OLEA South Africa.

Currently, the epicentre of the kidnapping crisis is the Gauteng province, the economic heartland of all of Southern Africa and home to Johannesburg, South Africa’s commercial capital.

“More than half of the total cases so far have been reported from the province—over 7,800 annually. Gangs are now expanding to other parts of the country in search of new targets,” he said.

At the beginning of March 2024, Nelson Mandela Bay in the Eastern Cape was identified as a hotspot. Four days later, a businessman was abducted from his shop, and a R27 million price tag was placed on his life. He was returned two weeks later—alive but hurt and traumatised.

Hood said this is reflective of a newly-coined term: ‘express kidnapping’, which involves criminal groups who kidnap and threaten people, then force them to withdraw the maximum amount allowed from ATMs or force them to open their banking apps to EFT funds.

“The kidnapping often ends when the victim can no longer withdraw money. But not always,” Hood said.

This type of kidnapping has grown exponentially in Africa and has seen a 30% climb in cases over the last decade in South Africa. Cases and risks have become so prominent that insurers have established specific products to mitigate the risks of kidnapping, as well as the rising costs associated with it.

The rise in express kidnapping is associated with an increase in levels of violent crime in the country, and the risk profile of victims has also widened, Hood said.

“It is no longer just High Net Worth Individuals who are the target. Risk is determined by an individual’s location, community or nationality, vulnerability, and type of employment or business.”

“Everyone is a potential target. Kidnappers change the ransom demands according to what they think the victim, or their families, can afford,” he said.

Most cases of express kidnapping in South Africa are a side-effect of carjacking, robberies, and rape but crime experts say an increasing number of victims are now being singled out directly.

“Professional syndicates focus on smooth transactions, and victims suffer less. However, copycat counterparts are more violent,” Hood said.

The Institute for Security Studies (ISS) reported in 2023 that the main reasons for kidnappings are ransom, human trafficking, and extortion.

“While kidnapping for ransom makes up only 5% of the criminal cases in South Africa, it still works out to around two people being kidnapped for ransom per day in the country.

“Part of the increase is attributed to the fact that two-thirds of the 21 million youths in South Africa are unemployed, so resort to crime to earn a living,” he said.

Read: Private security warns of kidnapping surge in South Africa

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