My five days back in SA from the UK: one foiled armed carjacking, one petrol bomb hurled at a house, an armed carjacking and house robbery — all within a 400m radius of my house. Let’s not forget an alleged dealer’s friend looking to intimidate me within earshot of the cops.
I live in a middle-class suburb. It was not known as a crime hotspot, by a long stretch. I teach at a university, which often seems world away from the rising tide of violence that is sweeping our once fairly quiet suburb. These days, while many of my colleagues may end their day at the gym or by taking a stroll in Newlands Forest or at Sea Point Pavilion, you can find me on my bicycle on neighbourhood watch patrol.
This isn’t what you may think. I am not a hot-head with a gun. I don’t have a Rambo / Jason Statham complex, but even here, far from the site of the Khayelitsha Commission, citizens feel that the police are failing them. As the most recent crime statistics reveal, what is at stake is the growing sense that state resources are not being employed effectively to ensure citizens’ personal safety.
Hijackings, house robberies and related violent crimes are on the up. The suburb I live in is an interesting one. Once declared a white group area, people of colour returned to it in the 1990s — only this time somewhat more affluent residents were beginning to move in and renovate with a vengeance. A mix of well-off and aspiring middle-class residents shared the space — but often with little concern for establishing social ties beyond meeting at mosques, churches or the local mall. This seemed to be one of those spaces where aspiring elites really spoke to each through the latest brands of posh cars they just purchased, as opposed to making real human contact.
That changed dramatically about five months ago at the scene of a double car hijacking, which sparked off the establishment of a neighbourhood watch. The watch was egged on by the horror of a murder in the same block. A positive outcome has been that neighbours are finally behaving like neighbours: we know each other’s names, we greet each other, we trade stories and we support each other when help is needed. While we have a very significant core of active neighbourhood watch participants, the truth is that there are still many neighbours who pass patrollers by as if they do not see them — that is, until something hits close to home (touch wood).
While we have had great support from key role-players at our local police station and while we have had the benefit of some training from the City of Cape Town and department of community safety (Docs), there are still key frustrations. In the time that we have been on patrol, police response times have been a key problem. In key instances, our sector patrol vans have just not been available. We generally have had one patrol van patrolling our sector, which actually consists of three suburbs. We have been told that about 15 of the 20 vehicles at the station are not functional. In one key instance, police officers showed up at the scene of a house burglary and then left without taking a statement because the person laying the complaint was not the home owner, but the house-sitter. The officer made no mention of opening a skeleton docket. The issue was only resolved when one of our patrollers went to speak to a very supportive captain at the local station.
Docs has yet to deliver on the equipment it promised us as the outcome of the training — these include boots, jackets and, most importantly, bicycles. A patroller has been trying to follow up in this, but the email communication has become increasingly tense. The last communication mentioned something about procurement processes. Another email mentioned something about the size one and two boots only being available. All of our patrollers are adults.
To complicate matters, we are now beginning to see a rise in vigilante action. In recent weeks, we have seen two businesses in the area getting pipe bombed. More recently, a home down my street was petrol bombed. We have seen this kind of vigilante action in the Cape before, but we are careful not to talk about it openly for fear of being associated with it. No civic-minded neighbourhood patroller wants to be associated with such senseless and dangerous acts of violence. We certainly do not want our sincere attempts to secure our homes and streets to be hijacked by more sinister forces and we certainly do not want to place our own lives in danger. Our patrollers came to scene of the bombing and a friend of the victim hinted that patrollers had something to do with the incident. As I attempted to engage the interlocutor, I was quickly shut down in a show of intimidation and force.
I have sought advice from the local station commander on this issue, but have yet to receive a reply to my query. I do not feel that I have sufficient training or support to deal with these issues. I am a scholar in the humanities with a research focus on youth culture and intellectual property — very far from being an expert with the Institute for Security Studies, for example. In fairness to the new commander, we have seen some improvement in police response times since he has taken up his position at the station. He is also in the process of consulting stakeholders in the community. In the most recent incident of hijacking and house robbery, the deputy station commander actually came to the scene. The stolen car was located in under an hour. But, still, our neighbours could have been shot dead. This was one of three violent incidents in just five days.
To add pressure to this situation, we have just learned that plans for a low-cost housing development in the suburb have been given the green light, despite earlier assurances by a ward councillor that the plans have been put “on ice” for the time-being. This further erodes trust in our leaders and residents have expressed concerns about whether transport, health, school and other forms of civic infrastructure can support a sharp increase in the local population. Residents are also concerned about whether the development will lead to an increase in crime, as witnessed in Vygieskraal, Belgravia (Athlone).
The latest report on crimes statistics comes at roughly the same time as the Seri report. It appears that the police are well-deployed to squash poor citizens’ protests and that their concerns are not being addressed constructively. Instead, the police are accused of escalating confrontations with protestors, as opposed to ensuring the safety of participants in civic action. Likewise, the speaker saw fit to call the riot police into the National Assembly when the EFF challenged the president to “pay back the money” as per the Public Protector’s recommendations in her Nkandla report, “Secure in Comfort”. The ongoing spy-tapes saga and the unresolved Richard Mdluli issues also suggest that crime intelligence is mobilised to protect the president’s inner circle, as opposed to serving the public interest. Basic principles relating to the separation of powers are being undermined.
Where does this leave the public? My sense is that priorities related to policing in the country are misplaced. The issue goes beyond persistent excuses about poor resources. It is really about poor leadership. What better example could be found than the fact that the national police commissioner, Riah Phiyega, is submitting a request to Treasury in order to boost public policing by R3.3 billion in order to deal with the increase in public protests? Instead of dedicating available resources to ensuring that communities trust the police and the National Prosecuting Authority, as a whole, we have seen these kinds of state apparatus increasingly being used to crush civic protests as well as to fight factional battles between competing political interest groups.
This is a breeding ground for ill-discipline in the lower ranks — hence, we have seen a large number of allegations of police brutality and corruption being levelled at police officers. In fact, recent arrests related to the notorious “crowbar gang” house robbers indicate a level of police involvement. Confidence in the police is eroding fast. The apparent return to vigilante crimes in the Cape just as the City, SAPS and Docs are encouraging the formation of neighbourhood watches in the face of shortcomings in policing strategies is evidence in this regard.
If the middle class has been fairly immune to these problems before, they certainly are waking up to the problem now. Will it continue to retreat behind its high walls, armed-response panic buttons and electric fences, or will it take up its place in civil society and be counted among “the poors” (to steal a line from Ashwin Desai, who has done a great deal of research on social movements and the repressive responses of the state to these movements)? The sooner that South Africa’s diverse communities realise that they are facing challenges and key fears that are all linked, the sooner they can engage in meaningful dialogue about how to address the underlying systemic causes of these challenges.
What is needed from Police Minister Nkosinathi Nhleko and Police Commissioner Riah Phiyega is transparent leadership that takes responsibility for the shortcomings in policing and engages in open dialogue with communities about bold and creative solutions to crime. We certainly don’t need more of the kind of blame-shifting that we saw at the Marikana Commission.
Calls for greater visibility of the police in our suburbs have often been met with excuses about a shortage of functional vehicles. We would gladly share the bicycles that Docs has been promising us with constables just to see them on our streets — perhaps they could even join us on neighbourhood watch patrol and establish lasting relations of trust and camaraderie. That may be dismissed as far-fetched, but neighbourhood watch volunteers and residents really want to feel the support of the police — from the constable at the coalface to the police minister and police commissioner. Surely, that is not too much to ask.
The author writes this op-ed in his personal capacity and the views expressed here not necessarily those of the neighbourhood watch or community policing sector sub-forum on which he serves as an exco member.