Where your Mercedes comes with a helicopter

Carjacking, the number one crime in South Africa, makes for unusual security measures, reports Liz M

I've bought a car. It is not the car I had planned to buy; the process of alighting on the metallic green Hyundai Elantra now parked outside my building was a long and tedious one, and it is a great relief that it is finally over. Buying a car in Johannesburg - for me at least - does not entail the usual criteria of cost, performance or reliability. It is all about carjackability.

I recently returned here after a long spell in London and it was arranged well in advance that I would buy my mother's Honda Ballade off her, as my parents no longer needed two cars. Shortly before leaving London, I happened to mention this to Chris McGreal, then the Guardian's Africa correspondent, and he suggested that I phone the insurance companies and check where it stood on the carjackers' hit list.

About 15,000 cars are stolen from their drivers at gunpoint each year - 70 per cent in Gauteng, the province where I now live. This is organised crime: cars are stolen to order by syndicates with shopping lists of various makes; the lists, it appears, are drawn up each week. A local security company which monitors tracking devices in cars reports that most carjackings take place on Tuesdays. But "if the syndicates cannot meet their orders on a Tuesday, the overflow goes to a Wednesday", according to the firm's press release.

However, a rival tracker company swiftly followed this up with a report that Wednesday to Saturday is its busiest time. Sunday, it seems, is the only day it is safe to go out. Most carjackings take place in driveways as the electronic gates that control access to most suburban houses are opened and closed. Potential carjackers mount a surveillance operation on their targets, assessing their routines before they pounce.

Police are always issuing advice about how to react: don't look the carjacker in the eye; keep your hands where they can be seen; do whatever he tells you. The number of deaths from carjacking is relatively low but the trauma of having a gun held to your head by a jittery young man is great. It is a crime peculiar to South Africa, at least on this scale.

The government is desperate to lower the statistics, not least because they scare away investors and contribute to an image of violence and lawlessness. Border checks on engine numbers and registration papers have cut down hugely on the number of cars stolen by syndicates supplying markets in neighbouring countries. A second-hand goods bill is to go before parliament in an attempt to crack down on so-called "chop shops", where older models are broken down into parts and sold on. Fifty per cent of stolen cars are simply re-registered and sold on.

No one quite knows why carjacking is so big here. It must have something to do with the size of the continent, the excellent roads (in South Africa, that is) and the high cost of cars and relative poverty of most people. Security devices have become so sophisticated that thieves need to steal cars with the driver in situ in order to gain access to them.

I did my homework and duly discovered that Hondas are indeed a hit with the carjackers, trailing only newer models of BMW 3 Series and VW Golf GTIs. I promptly reneged on my deal with my mother and urged her to dump the car.

My father recently bought himself a fancy new Mercedes. When he presses a secret pedal twice, a helicopter appears in the sky above the car within minutes. He shows off this gadget with delight along with his other toys, like the dashboard dialling and earpiece linked to his mobile phone. It would never occur to him not to buy an expensive car simply because it might put him in danger. A friend sums it up thus: "You can't live in fear. When your time comes, it comes."

Perhaps it has something to do with the sun, which makes everything look brighter.

I, who have not yet regained the southern insouciance, am taking no chances. Hyundai has been the Cinderella of cars here since the local distributor was accused by the police of fraud and murder. The company has recently been taken over by a reputable crowd but is yet to regain its popularity. Even carjackers spurn it. So that's why the Hyundai is the car for me.