Vigilantes in the suburbs

2014-10-21 08:00

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In an innocuous-looking house on a slipway off Ontdekkers Road in Florida, Joburg, four controllers scan their computer screens in Best Secure’s nerve centre. It’s a Monday morning and the day’s first crisis – an abandoned baby discovered in a dustbin – has been reported.

The police have been summoned but haven’t arrived, and the security company sends one of its vehicles to the scene.

The driver performs CPR for 10 minutes and the baby starts to breathe.

So does everyone in the control room.

This is par for the course during a day in the office for Wayne*, who has worked for Best Secure for the past three years.

On an average day, Wayne tracks the movements of 14 vehicles on his computer screen and responds to about 200 calls – double that number if there is a storm.

“No day is normal and every day is enormously stressful.”

Another controller, Jacky*, elaborates: “The most stressful part of my job is dealing with the police. If you phone 10111, they put you on hold.

“Then they’ll take an hour to get to the crime scene. That’s if they don’t get lost on the way. On average, there’s a two-hour response time.”

Private security companies fill the gap for those South Africans who have lost faith in the police – and who can afford this alternative.

Louis Grobler, a consultant for Best Secure, says that about two years ago, the Sophiatown precinct’s six sectors were reduced to three.

Today, six vehicles, or two per sector, serve the entire precinct – if they’re all in working order.

The company’s patrollers protect residents in 22 suburbs from Magaliesburg to Roosevelt Park – including Greymont, Newlands, Bosmont, Albertskroon, Westdene and Northcliff.

A changing world

“Keeping one of our vehicles on the road costs R40?000 a month,” explains Best Secure MD Okkie Nel, “so you need 100 clients willing to pay R400 a month. In a crime-ridden, poor area like Westbury, run by gangs who control their own sections, that’s impossible. People can’t afford private policing.”

In nearby Westdene, in an attempt to fill the policing vacuum, some residents have banded together to secure the services of private guard Sifiso Nkosi.

After guarding 20 houses in the street for the past 10 years, Nkosi knows every corner, everyone who lives there, as well as who belongs and who doesn’t. Armed only with pepper-spray, a baton, handcuffs, a panic button and radio, Nkosi’s job is not for sissies.

“I know things are better when I’m here,” he says. “I try to limit the crime?...?but Westdene is a rough place.”

Nkosi is adamant that things have improved, at least on “his” street, and on his watch. Nonetheless, he’s had two of his own bicycles stolen in the past year – the last at gunpoint in July. Though his street appears calm, things are not always as they seem.

Cognisant of the changing face of crime, Nkosi recalls how in days gone by, “it was smash-and-grab, these days, criminals use tricks?...?They ask favours or ask for directions and they don’t look like the way criminals used to look. The people robbing today are decent, well-dressed people. They drive good cars and have women with them in their cars, old women, young girls, even children. They use children as young as nine or 10 to grab phones and run away. Cellphones make matters much worse.”

Or better, at least for those criminals whose modus operandi is aided and abetted by technology.

“Crime has become much more sophisticated since the advent of the cellphone,” Grobler explains. “The days of accomplices waiting outside a house in an old jalopy are over. Today’s hijackers aren’t distinguishable any more. They look good, they’re well-dressed, well-spoken, educated and drive expensive cars. They drop a spotter in a suburb to check out what’s happening, he phones his buddies, tells them where to go and they phone to be picked up after they’ve finished their job.”

Recent data provided by the SA Police Service paints an interesting picture of the Sophiatown precinct. Between April 2012 and April 2013, 703 house burglaries were reported – close to two house burglaries a day.

In addition, 6?076 crimes were reported at the Sophiatown police station – more than the Brixton police station’s 5?009, and almost double Parkview police station’s 3?744.

Mark Napier, chair of the Westdene Sector Crime Forum (WSCF), says: “Crime is bad here and it’s got worse in the past few years, in part due to failing police services. The police have become ineffective and it’s very serious. I believe corruption is a huge problem at both the Sophiatown and Brixton police stations, where command and control have broken down to a large extent.”

Natasha Springfield, WSCF deputy chair, believes the solution lies in close cooperation between the community and the police. “The police say they want to work with the community and want information, but when they’re given information, they do nothing. I feel they’re working against us instead of working with us.”

A lack of transparency and accountability is also problematic. “At our monthly forum meetings, the police regularly provide us with crime figures, but we’re not allowed to divulge them.”

Trawling the quiet, almost deserted streets of Sophiatown with local resident Mbali Zwane on a Saturday morning, the destruction of the sense of “community” that previously defined Kofifi is apparent in the manner in which residents have retreated behind high walls, spikes, palisades and electric fences.

Though a lower middle-income area, residents of the former Triomf – officially renamed Sophiatown in 2006 – have been forced to rely on private security companies for protection.

Lacking in law enforcement

Like Springfield, Zwane says “everyone believes the crime that happens here comes from Westbury”. And not without reason. An intricate network of underground pipes offers easy access from Westbury, and escape from Westdene.

What’s more, according to Grobler, sign language helps criminals navigate the subterranean world of storm-drain pipes traversing Joburg.

The situation has not improved with the advent of private security companies. “Private sector companies are making huge profits because of the inability of the police to do their jobs, but they’re not helping to reduce crime. They don’t do investigations and are mainly reactive,” Zwane says.

“Security company patrol cars are often parked with drivers asleep in their car, or just waiting for a call. Most of them won’t respond if the complainant isn’t about their client.”

With little faith in the ability of either the police or security companies to secure their suburb, it’s no wonder residents are despondent.

Ward 69 DA councillor Katja Naumann says: “Everyone in Westdene has had enough of crime. People are fed up and they’re justified.”

Naumann says she has personally given the Sophiatown police many leads, phone numbers and addresses that are never pursued, nor are cases investigated.

“Residents do the investigations and work, but there’s no follow-up or investigation.

“That’s why vigilantism is on the rise. Vigilantism is a product of police corruption and apathy. I understand how this happens, but I don’t support it.”

A frustrated Nkosi echoes Naumann’s sentiments: “Cable theft happens regularly. I work hard to catch the criminals, but the police let me down. They don’t give us support or backup. They take too long to come, they don’t come, or they arrest the person and the very next day he’s back on the street telling me he’s going to kill me. I don’t trust the police. Police and criminals work together here. I used to phone the police. Most of the time I don’t bother now.”

Frikkie Botes, the self-proclaimed “King of Westdene”, is one long-term Westdene resident who has lost faith in the ability of private security companies, the police and the Westdene Residents Association to solve the area’s problems.

“I’m tired of sitting back, watching and waiting while gangsters and criminals rule the streets,” the man styled after Rambo says. “This community is fed up with crime.”

Though Naumann is adamant the Westdene Residents Association is the official, constitutionally appointed, legally elected association, a frustrated Botes recently formed Concerned Residents of Westdene – and appointed himself coordinator.

No other choice

“I have the support of 30% of residents who believe we have no alternative but to take matters into our own hands,” Botes says.

In this capacity, Botes wrote a desperate letter to DA spokesperson on safety and security Kate Lorimer, calling for a “clean up of the Sophiatown police station”, which led to the Gauteng provincial commissioner investigating Botes’ claims.

At a meeting in the middle of June held at the Sophiatown police station to address these concerns, the deep divisions within the community came to a head.

“This is not about kingdoms, it’s about crime?…?You can’t appoint yourself,” Johannesburg Central Cluster Commander Brigadier Anton du Bruyn cautioned Botes. “We have a structure and we need to work together.”

Naumann is vocal about the dangers of self-appointed vigilante groups patrolling the streets with guns and taking the law into their own hands.

After tracking crime trends for 30 years, Grobler claims civil war in the suburbs is looming, unless urgent action is taken: “If the authorities don’t wake up soon, we’re on the road to disaster. It’s only a matter of time before people take matters into their own hands.

“When people get angry about being blackmailed, threatened, mugged, maimed, murdered, hijacked and burgled, they’ll eventually do something about it. Crime is out of hand, our leaders are trying to talk it down and the police can’t contain it. If citizens take the law into their own hands, this could just be the flame that ignites the fire. We’re sitting on a time bomb.” – The Wits Justice Project

*?Not their real names

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