Gun ownership tempts more South Africans as insecurity grows

Anger at the country's inability to protect its own people is pushing many to arm themselves.

A spent shell leaves a pistol fired by a woman as she takes part in training organised by the women empowerment group Girls on Fire, in Midrand, on 7 February 2021. Picture: MARCO LONGARI/AFP

HEIDELBERG - It was the first indication a crowd was expected - a coffee trailer perched itself on the lawn of the Rooikraal shooting range south of Johannesburg.

Folding chairs and cooler boxes in tow, the crowd swelled as the morning gloom lifted to be gradually replaced with a red glow over the maize plantation that nestled the range.

Dozens of people, mostly women of colour weighed down by their ever-growing safety fears, gathered to practice target shooting.

Africa's most industrialised nation is notorious for its terrifyingly high crime rate. At least 50 people are killed daily, according to police figures.

"Is it painful to put next to your shoulders?" 21-year-old Rabina Karabo asks an instructor, pointing to a 50-calibre precision rifle.

A middle-aged woman standing behind her sipping coffee and sporting ear muffs and safety goggles exclaims: "That's a beast of a gun!"

If the gun is not rested well on the shoulders "it is going to kick you like a donkey", warns the instructor.

South Africa has one of the world's highest murder rates for a country not at war.

Now, anger at the country's inability to protect its own people is pushing many to arm themselves.

Women's empowerment group Girls on Fire is trying to ramp up gun uptake among women.

For 47-year-old Matseko Silanda, the training has helped her shake off her nervousness and she now wants to own a gun.

"I am a woman. You know women in South Africa are not safe," she says, showing a clip of her shooting at the range.

Brought to the range by her mother, Karabo is not sold on gun ownership yet but hopes to "learn to control" one.

"I shouldn't be scared of it," she says moments after firing four shots.

Figures for the number of guns in South Africa are sketchy and opinion is divided on carrying one.

Advocacy group Gun Free South Africa estimates there are at least 4.5 million legal guns with nearly a similar figure in shadowy hands in a country of 58.8 million people.

A six-month government amnesty period for the return of illegal guns netted only 46,714 firearms in 2020, but was extended to the end of January after being hit by the coronavirus pandemic.

Trainer Michelle Van Der Merwe says owning a gun has "liberated" her and she has managed to help people caught in attempted hijackings.

"When one takes their first shot, the fear disappears in them," making them "courageous, like warriors", she says.

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