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Caught in the crossfire

My partner and I have been studiously avoiding a piece of paper sitting on the kitchen counter. It’s been days since it arrived, and it sits there, demanding our attention.

We both don’t want to deal with it, but somehow its presence muscles in on our conversations. So we discuss it half-heartedly; then, like all other unpleasant chores, we drop it and reassure each other that “we really must think about this”. Mostly, when we ask each other, “What do you think?”, the answer is always an indecisive “I don’t know …”.

The pesky piece of paper is a simple questionnaire, sent to us by a newly formed neighbourhood security association. Its objective? To turn our neighbourhood into “a safe and peaceful suburb, by coordinating an integrated security initiative”. Sounds perfectly acceptable, no?

The questionnaire is quite short and simple, but there is one question near the end that is causing the dilemma: “Do you support ‘proactive guarding’ (ie: armed street guards)?”

The latest security trend (yes, there is such a thing; it’s South Africa, remember) is to employ a private army — let’s call a spade a spade — to roam your neighbourhood streets, guns cocked and ready. They promise that they only patrol a limited number of households and never leave the area, so are therefore more effective than regular security companies. They are also impressively styled: black, bulletproof vehicles; black, bulletproof uniforms; crack commando shades; and, of course, very large and very visible weaponry. When you see them, they look slick and very intimidating, which I guess is the point.

It seems that an alarm system, electric fencing, panic buttons and a private security company are just not enough these days. Our street has even gone as far as employing an additional 24-hour guard, from our private security company, to patrol our block. The only problem is that the guard is not armed, so if the shit hits the fan, all he can really do is to radio the security company to call for back-up.

One’s first gut reaction to “proactive guarding” is: “Yes, sign up immediately. I don’t want to become another crime statistic,” but just as quickly, the counter-arguments come flooding in. Is this really how we want to live? Is this really how we have to live? We are already prisoners in our own homes, so will we feel better if we live in a semi-military state? Many would say they would.

But just how heavy-handed will the armed guards be with anyone strolling through the neighbourhood? They promise to interrogate anyone who is unfamiliar in the neighbourhood, and you can be sure that the majority of those decisions are going to be race based. To solve that problem, we may as well reintroduce the pass system. So much for ubuntu.

And is throwing more guns at the problem going to solve it? In Anthony Altbeker’s book A Country at War with Itself: South Africa’s Crisis of Crime, he says he believes that criminals need to show that they have the upper hand, so if it becomes more difficult to steal a car, they will resort to hijacking. If your house is more secure, criminals will have to put a gun to your head to prevent you from pressing the panic button. He has a very valid point. Violence promotes violence.

Throwing more guns at our crime problem is not going to make it go away. It will just make the already unbearable situation worse. Just yesterday, our deputy minister of safety and security made a call to all police officers to ignore procedure and just “shoot the bastards”. Naturally a large section of the population cheered her on.

It’s understandable, but not acceptable. It took almost a year to bring the criminals whose stray bullets were responsible for killing a baby strapped to the back of her mother, who happened to be caught in the crossfire in a downtown shootout. Imagine the mayhem if we nurtured the potential for more of those shootouts. We all joke that living in South Africa is like living in the Wild West. But no one laughs that freely any more, and the joke is fast becoming a very ominous premonition.

Be careful what you wish for …