Carjacking-Insights from South Africa to a New Crime Problem

By Davis, Linda | Australian and New Zealand Journal of Criminology, August 2003 | Go to article overview

Carjacking-Insights from South Africa to a New Crime Problem


Davis, Linda, Australian and New Zealand Journal of Criminology


Although vehicle hijacking is a worldwide phenomenon, it has increased to such an extent in South Africa that it is currently regarded as one of the countries with the highest hijacking figures in the world. It is estimated that a motor vehicle is hijacked every 40 to 54 minutes in South Africa. This implies that more than 25 motor vehicle drivers become victims of hijackings daily. Despite these statistics, little is known about the factors that could increase an individual's potential to become a victim of this crime. In this article, selective research findings of an exploratory study of 12 vehicle hijackers are highlighted in an attempt to elucidate possible factors that could influence target selection during a vehicle hijacking. From the findings it became evident that hijacking does not take place erratically: hijackers are selective in the choice of targets and target selection mostly takes place based on the vehicle driven by the motorist.

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Vehicle hijacking--"carjacking"--can be defined as the intentional and unlawful theft or attempted theft of a vehicle by force or threat of force. As an example of the extent to which this crime now occurs in some societies, an average of 35,000 completed and attempted hijackings take place each year in the United States of America (Rand, 1994). Although various factors such as lucrative outlets, national and international organised crime syndicates, inadequate border control, insufficient vehicle identification, corruption, the availability of weapons and limited cooperation between neighbouring countries might contribute to high vehicle hijacking figures worldwide, one of the main reasons for the increase in vehicle hijacking seems to be improved security measures installed in vehicles to prevent the theft. In order to neutralise the effectiveness of modern day anti-vehicle theft devices more and more offenders hijack a vehicle or "steal it with force" in order to secure successful possession.

Although this article focuses on a study that was conducted in South Africa, the relevance of this article to academics and researchers in other countries is twofold. Despite the fact that only a handful of hijackings take place each year in countries such as Australia, it is important to note that vehicle theft as such is on the increase in this specific country. In Australia, vehicle theft has increased from 112,472 vehicles stolen in 1993 to 139,094 during 2000 (Australian Institute of Criminology, 2001). As it is estimated that Australia has the second-highest rate of vehicle theft victimisation in the world (Van Kesteren, Mayhew & Nieuwbeerta, 2000) one can assume that motorists will utilise anti-theft devices in order to curb this crime. If we consider that the shift from theft to hijacking (also known as functional displacement) is a common phenomenon in countries with high hijacking figures, such as South Africa, it is not unlikely that the installing of sophisticated alarm systems and immobilisers to curb vehicle theft might cause an escalation in vehicle hijacking figures.

Apart from the possibility of displacement, the incidence of robbery in general is also on the increase in countries such as Australia and New Zealand. The fact that the victimisation rate for robbery during 2000 for New South Wales alone was 206 victims per 100,000 and that this crime increased nationally from 12765 in 1993 to 23,314 in 2000 (Australian Institute of Criminology, 2001) while it increased from 1597 in 1999 to 1666 in 2001 in New Zealand (D. Trappitt, personal communication), further illustrates the suggestion that "theft" facilitated by violence or threats of violence, is not an uncommon phenomenon in these countries.

The author will expound on the extent and nature of vehicle hijacking in South Africa. Although countries such as Australia and New Zealand do not seem to have a problem with vehicle hijacking currently, knowledge about the nature of this violent crime might be empowering in terms of preventing an escalation of this crime to levels that are uncontrollable. …

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