It's no secret that Johannesburg, South Africa is a much more dangerous place than it used to be, not just in terms of threats to personal safety but also threats to property, especially guns coming into the international airport as checked baggage. For a while there in the mid-1990s, the problem of disappearing guns was so great the city's reputation as the hub of choice for hunters coming to southern Africa began to suffer, as did the reputation of that city's major airline, South African Airways. Well, there were reasons for all that, according to Bert Meintjes, Manager of Security for SAA at Johannesburg International Airport. I met with Meintjes on my way to Zambia last month and came away convinced that SAA has a grip on the gun-security problem now, and that the airport generally has become a lot safer place for guns. Meintjes says the rash of gun problems SAA and other airlines had in the mid-1990s stemmed from a decision in April 1994 to take the task of airport security away from the South African police and give it to a new autonomous airport security company. The new company had no special provision to handle firearms at all, Meintjes says, indicating the procedures that evolved saw three different sets of people having access to arriving firearms. Making matters worse was a boom in general tourism about this time that made hunters a much less important part of the overall business of SAA.
Gun problems didn't make it onto the radar screen for a while, Meintjes admits, but when they did SAA commissioned a study to see just how many guns it was handling. Officials were amazed, Meintjes says, to find that, during an eight-month study period, SAA handled an average of 5,000 rifles a month. That was 40,000 rifles in eight months! Clearly, that much valuable and "sensitive" cargo had to be looked after better. What evolved is a system that treats guns the same way precious stones and other super-valuables are handled, Meintjes says, plus a special Firearms Desk was created to monitor each firearm on its way through the........(continued)