Southern Africa is awash with illegal firearms fuelling violence, conflict, and organized crime. Guns and ammunition are a currency in an underworld of gangs, hitmen, drug syndicates, extortion, kidnappings, wildlife crime, and bloody turf wars in the informal transport sector.

Rising violent crimes – such as cash-in-transit heists, armed robberies, kidnappings, and assassinations – share one common factor: the ready availability of illegal guns.

Illicit firearms also contribute to political conflict and instability in South Africa, Mozambique, and Zimbabwe. In Mozambique, the availability of illegal firearms has compounded the violence linked to an insurgency in the north of the country, while in South Africa, both legal and illegal firearms played a significant role in the deaths of 330 people during the recent unrest in Gauteng and KwaZulu Natal in July 2021.

While the exact figure for the number of illicit firearms in circulation in the SADC region is not readily available, it is estimated that there are about 3.8 million unregistered illegal firearms in circulation in South Africa, Mozambique, and Zimbabwe.

Many of these come from civilian gun owners whose firearms have been lost or stolen, but many others come from state institutions. It is not known exactly how many firearms have been lost and stolen from the police, military, and other government departments, and a lack of oversight means that many losses and thefts go unrecorded.

In South Africa, the exact numbers of weapons lost and stolen from government departments and agencies are unknown. There is little public oversight despite the fact that a number of these departments have a poor track record when it comes to monitoring and control over their firearms. Many ignore access to information and even parliamentary requests for data on lost and stolen firearms.

While the South African Police do release some information on firearms lost or stolen each year, they do not release or do not have, figures on firearms missing from police evidence stocks and of firearms earmarked for destruction.

This report is based on extensive research and fieldwork conducted in South Africa, Mozambique, and Zimbabwe. The report examines the sources, markets, and types of firearms inflaming conflict and organized crime in the region.

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Episode 24: How to silence the guns: Southern Africa's illegal firearms markets