South African triathlete Mhlengi Gwala recovers from surgery in his hospital bed in Durban, South Africa, Friday, March 9, 2018. Gwala, who suffered severe injuries when attackers cut his legs with a saw, says he will focus on recovery so he can run and cycle again. (AP Photo/Khaya Ngwenya)
South African triathlete Mhlengi Gwala recovers from surgery in his hospital bed in Durban, South Africa, Friday, March 9, 2018. Khaya Ngwenya /AP Photo

A shocking crime rallies South Africans



Even for crime jaded South Africans, this was a shocking story; a young man out training for an upcoming triathlon, gets mugged by assailants armed with a chainsaw, who leave him with severe injuries to his legs. The public reaction - outrage and the raising of money for the victim's medical care has been similarly remarkable.

Mhlengi Gwala, a 27-year-old athlete living in the east coast harbour city of Durban, set out for a training ride on his bike early on Tuesday. Soon after, three men ambushed him and pulled him to the ground. Holding him down, they applied a chainsaw to his legs.

Mr Gwala was fortunate. His inept attackers failed to get the chainsaw to work properly. Usually used to cutting through trees and heavy branches, chainsaws are responsible for dozens of deaths and injuries from misuse worldwide.

Mr Gwala is a regular competitor in triathlons and Iron Man challenges.

He was dragged into a bushy area near the University of KwaZulu-Natal, which lies within a leafy suburban area. He offered his belongings but in spite of this, the men began to hack at his legs. They managed to cut through most of his muscle‚ nerves and arteries to the bone.

Only the intervention of a security guard from a nearby building, who heard his cries ended the assault. The men fled, and Mr Gwala was able to crawl to a nearby road where a passing motorist stopped to help. The attackers remain at large.

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Attackers attempt to saw off South African triathlete's legs

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As South Africans began their morning commute at daybreak, news of the attack spread.

"What kind of society do we live in that such things happen?" wrote Katlego Lekote on the most shared tweet on the event. "Another young man in the prime of his life. Attacked with such hatred for no apparent reason. This story of Mhlengi Gwala doesn't sound like an ordinary mugging, these people were out to ruin his career; SPEEDY RECOVERY."

South Africans opened their wallets and a local crowd funding sight quickly raised 600,000 rand (Dh 186,000) for his medical care. Doctors say he will recover, but it will be a long haul before he can compete professionally again.

"Because of the severity of the damage to the tissue, it will take Mhlengi about two years to recover, Olympic doctor Kevin Subban said. "Muscle damage is easier to repair, but in this case there was nerve damage which complicates things."

Mr Gwala himself appears in good spirits, and was quoted by a local news site, Times Online, as saying: "I'm good."

Many remain puzzled by the unusual attack.

"This incident was shocking," said Yusuf Abramjee, an anti-crime activist and analyst. "It appears to be a targeted attack and robbery appears not to be a motive because nothing was stolen."

Crime is a highly emotive topic in South Africa, a country of 55 million people where nearly one third of the workforce is jobless according to official figures.

Police recorded more than 19,000 murders last year - about 34 per 100,000 people. By comparison the homicide rate in the UAE in 2012 was 2.6 per 100,000, according to the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime. The average global homicide rate for that period was 6.3 per 100,000 population, the same study found.

Mr Abramjee says although poverty plays a role, many crimes appear to be linked to high lifestyle expectations. Criminals spend the money on luxury vehicles, clothes and other expensive items.

While the attack on Mr Gwala was especially brutal, criminal violence usually has openly financial motives. A viral video this week for instance showed a man armed with an assault rifle dying in a puddle of blood, after he was shot by cash-in-transit guards who returned fire after they were attacked.

Another common crime is motorists forced out of their cars at gunpoint, often in their own driveways. Police struggle to cope with the level of violence and local communities live in fear, Mr Abramjee says.

"We have also seen an increase in cash van robberies, kidnappings for ransom, hijackings of vehicles," Mr Abramjee adds. "On average some 50 people are killed in South Africa every day. This is very worrying."

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