A renewed surge in attacks on armoured trucks that transport vast amounts of money between retailers and banks is hurting South Africa's economy, given that the bulk of transactions in the country are still conducted in hard cash, industry officials said this week.
Cash-in-transit (CIT) attacks had been on the wane after peaking at 467 in 2006/07, but have spiked higher again over the past year.
Data from the South African Banking Risk Information Centre (Sabric) shows that 278 cash-in-transit robberies were reported in 2016, jumping significantly to 378 last year. To date in 2018, more than 140 attacks have occured.
Industry officials are reluctant to give the rand value of the money stolen, but it is probably in the billions of rand, given that there is around R136 billion circulating in cash in South Africa's economy.
Cash represents some 58 percent of South Africa's gross domestic product and 80 to 84 percent of all transactions in are conducted with cash, making the robberies a serious concern, said Richard Phillips, CEO of cash management company Cash Connect.
Three main cash-in-transit companies, SBV, G4S and Fidelity, together execute about 59,500 physical transfers on a daily basis, operating just over 2,000 vehicles which have come under increasing coming attack from gangs using sophisticated weapons such as AK-47 rifles and commercial explosives.
"Cash is a critical and important component of our economy and the CIT industry is a critical and important service provider to the national distribution of cash," Phillips told a forum in Johannesburg.
"It’s so important that if threatened or brought to a stop, we run the risk of bringing the whole economy to a stop."
Most of the robbers involved in the heists are repeat offenders who usually start out as young petty thieves trying to take care of families but develop into hardened career criminals driven by greed, says Dr Mahlogonolo Thobane, a senior lecturer at the University of South Africa.
"It’s about cash. In the beginning the robbers said they were in need of money to fend for their families but as they persist in committing these robberies, it’s not about (needing) money any more, it’s about greed," said Thobane, who interviewed 40 robbers detained in six correctional centres in Gauteng province for her dissertation
Very often, these criminals avoid arrest because they are protected by community members who benefit financially from their crimes.
"Communities do know who the cash in transit robbers are. They are just turning a blind eye because they are also benefiting from the money coming from the robberies," Thobane said.
Critics say the police have so far failed to put a comprehensive plan in place to fight a scourge believed to be perpetrated by a relatively small syndicate.
"What we are dealing with here is organised crime (and) the police in my view have been caught off guard, " said leading anti-crime activist Yusuf Abramjee.
"The biggest problem with policing is that crime intelligence continues to sleep," Abramjee added, while acknowledging that police were also handicapped by a lack of resources. "We need a multi-faceted approach and we need the public to come on board."
Many have called for a more coordinated effort by the justice cluster in the government -- comprising the police, justice and correctional services departments -- to ensure that more arrests are made and the criminals successfully prosecuted and given stiff sentences.
"When you talk about what drives cash in transit crime, it’s the lucrative nature of it, it’s the easy access to money, and it’s the fact that there is low risk in terms of being arrested and prosecuted," said author Anneliese Burgess, who has recently published a book focusing on the scourge.
"The way to stop it is to make it a higher risk endeavour. I’m hoping that what I see as quite a civic outrage around these people taking this crime right into the hearts of our cities and towns and highways is going to give the politicians the necessary backbone to actually say we need to do something."