Rainbow nation or not, South Africa is battling a crime epidemic. Even as the country was in mourning for their beloved hero Nelson Mandela, Radovan Krejcir, a Czech businessman and fugitive, made headlines this month when he was denied bail. The towering 45-year-old — he stands well over 6’2 and is built like a truck — was arrested in November on charges of kidnapping and assault in connection with a botched 24 million rand ($2.3 million) crystal meth deal. He appeared in the Palm Ridge Magistrate’s Court, just outside Johannesburg, alongside his co-accused Desai Lupondo, an associate, and Samuel Maruping and Machache Nthoroane, two burly suspended members of the Hawks, South Africa‘s elite crime-fighting division.
Krejcir’s case, a glimpse into a world of narco-trafficking and crooked cops, epitomizes the widespread belief Johannesburg is a gangsters’ paradise. “Since the early 90’s there has been a consolidation of criminal networks in South Africa, focusing on the main urban centers, like Johannesburg,” says Mark Shaw, an organized crime researcher at the Pretoria-based Institute for Security Studies, a policy think-tank. “Organized crime is not new,” says Shaw, “but it has become much more complex, with much more foreign connections than it had before.”
As Africa experiences massive growth — real GDP is growing at a rate of 4.9 per cent a year and is expected to total $2.6 trillion in 2020 — so does its illegal economy. South Africa, the continent’s largest economy, experienced its organized crime boom after the end of apartheid, when borders opened after years of global isolation. With lawmakers focused on nation-building, not policing, syndicates flourished, taking advantage of the country’s sophisticated banking system and transportation infrastructure. After Nigeria, South Africa has the highest level of illicit financial outflows in the continent, growing from US$1.29 billion in 2002, to a staggering US$23.73 billion in 2011, reported Global Financial Integrity, a Washington-based research organization, in 2013.
Krejcir, an economics graduate from the University of Ostrava who cashed in on the Czech Republic’s post-Soviet privatization schemes, left home in 2005 after he was cornered by Czech police at his luxurious villa in Prague. He escaped through his bathroom window and fled to the Seychelles, a country in the Indian Ocean popular with wealthy tourists. Two years later, Krejcir arrived in South Africa using a passport under the name of Egbert Juls Savy; his request for political asylum in the country is still pending. He set up shop in Bedfordview, an affluent town a 20-minute drive from Johannesburg, founding a small empire of companies dealing with diamonds, gold, and spare car parts, according to court documents. His arrest was the dramatic climax to a violent year. In July, Krejcir was the target of of an assassination attempt that saw remote-controlled guns rigged behind the license plate of a car shoot at his black Mercedes-Benz. He survived unscathed, declaring with bravado, “all my life is James Bond stuff.” He denies having links to organized crime.
Johannesburg, South Africa’s largest city, is a major depot for everything illegal, from drugs to rhino horns. Truck hijackings and commercial crime, hallmark operations of criminal syndicates, are by far the most prevalent in Gauteng, the state where Johannesburg is located, according to 2013 data released by the South African Police Service. Meanwhile, poaching in the country is at an all-time high. As of the end of October, 790 rhinos had been killed by poachers in 2013, well over the annual record of 668 set in 2012.
Organized crime is so entrenched the country it warps the very authorities appointed to fight it. In 2010, Jackie Selebi, the former national commissioner of the South African Police Service, was found guilty of corruption and sentenced to 15 years in prison having accepted a bribe from convicted drug-dealer Glenn Agliotti. One year later, his successor, Bheki Cele, stepped down amid allegations of graft. “Over the past 10 years, corruption has been growing significantly, and bribery in the public sector has increased. This all fuels organized crime,” says Peter Gastrow, a crime consultant based in Cape Town. “Organized crime has significantly expanded without the state able to, or perhaps willing to, take effective steps to counter it,” says Gastrow. “Mow we’re in a situation where we are, unfortunately, overwhelmed.”
Given the corruption in South Africa’s police force, it may be the tax man that poses the greatest threat to Krejcir. The South African Revenue Service (SARS) filed a court order in November alleging Krejcir has over 200 million rands (US $19.1 million) of undisclosed financial transactions, which “will have substantial tax implications,” according to SARS spokesman Adrian Lackay. In the documents submitted to the North Gauteng High Court in Pretoria, SARS says Krejcir was doing business with Glenn Agliotti, a convicted drug dealer, and George Smith, who is accused of killing strip club king Lolly Jackson. “Noose is tightening around Krejcir it would seem,” said Mandy Wiener, a local journalist, on Twitter, “SARS going for him a la Al Capone.” (Al Capone, Chicago’s famous prohibition-era gangster, wasn’t brought down on murder or trafficking charges, but was jailed for tax evasion).
But for every gangster South African authorities put behind bars, there will be many more in the future. Gastrow says the illicit market is shifting to China, where its rapidly growing middle class is fuelling worldwide demand. That means African countries will be, more than ever, key transit points. South Africa, with its world-class infrastructure, is the ideal location for international criminal syndicates catering to East Asia. “It’s well located, has airports, banking, a high standard of life,” says Gastrow, “it’s just that attractive of a haven.”
If Krejcir is worried by the criminal charges — his next court date is January 24 — he isn’t showing it. He says in his affidavit he wants to make South Africa his permanent home. “I deny I am guilty,” said Krejcir, “I enjoy living in South Africa and would like to stay here for the rest of my life.”