Crime Stoppers

Frustrated by incompetent policing, South Africans are turning to private alternatives.


One almanac recently described South Africa as "the world's most dangerous country" outside official war zones. In the last decade murder, rape, and robbery rates have all doubled. According to official statistics for 1997, South Africa had 63 murders and 134 rapes per 100,000 people, compared to seven murders and 36 rapes in the United States. There were 258 car thefts per 100,000 South Africans, 866 housebreakings, and 601 assaults. Appalling as these numbers are, they probably understate the crime problem substantially, since polls indicate that most South Africans do not trust the police. A 1997 survey by the Human Sciences Research Council, a quasi-government agency, found that about one-fifth of crime victims do not contact police.

The reluctance to report crimes may be partly due to the fact that in the last few years police participation in crime has skyrocketed. In 1997 a total of 15,326 police officers, almost 14 percent of the national force, were charged with crimes. Meanwhile, officials of the African National Congress, the ruling party, have been implicated as members of criminal gangs responsible for dozens of armored truck heists.

The police force has an absenteeism rate of about 30 percent a day. The government is able to find a suspect and get a conviction in only 15 percent of murders, 7 percent of rapes, and 5 percent of burglaries. (By comparison, the FBI reports U.S. clearance rates of 66 percent for murder, 51 percent for rape, and 13 percent for burglaries.) To make matters worse, President Nelson Mandela celebrated his 80th birthday last year by releasing 9,000 criminals early. The next day two of them murdered an elderly couple. Another released convict, who had been imprisoned for raping a 50-year-old woman and then hacking her to death, promptly tied up and raped his two nieces, 13 and 14, and went on to rape at least five other children.

Given the government's manifest failure to deal with surging crime, many South Africans are turning to private alternatives. These include not only gated communities for the wealthy but security services and self-help arrangements that benefit the middle class and poor. They have achieved striking successes, sometimes despite active opposition by the government.

The Residents Association of the Honeysuckle, an upper-class white area of Johannesburg, has raised about $16,000 to secure the neighborhood with gates and guards. It has also taken over park maintenance and installed its own street lights. Since residents took these actions two years ago, says association Chairman Giovanni Santoriello, the neighborhood has not had a single incident of crime.

In neighboring Sandton, also a wealthy area, residents are experimenting with road closures, stopping through traffic with barriers. Steve Margo of Sandton Precinct, a civic group, says: "The closures are working. People are now working together, walking in the streets, jogging and riding bicycles in safety." But ANC officials in the Johannesburg government charge that such measures are inherently racist because they divert crime from white areas. As closures proliferate throughout the suburbs, the government has said it will send in armed officials to remove them unless they are first approved by the city–a process that can drag on for years.

In Kensington, a middle-class Johannesburg suburb, residents have contracted with a private security firm, for armed protection. The firm hired about 90 previously unemployed men to patrol the streets, covering some 3,500 homes. Each street has its own bank account, and residents contribute to pay for the guard on their street.

Kensington resident Peter Hugo had been burgled eight times in 10 years but says that since the guards were hired last year the only crime reported in his area has been the theft of a car battery. Hugo also found that his household insurance rate fell by 25 percent. Residents are saving 150 rand ($27) to 250 rand ($45) a month as a result of this effect. "My contribution to the guards is mostly covered by the money I save on insurance," Hugo says. The Johannesburg Saturday Star reports another side effect of the program: "Before the new system, neighbors were largely strangers. Now, most people know each other and there are regular street parties."

But as with the street closures, the government is trying to stop residents from addressing the crime problem on their own. The national Security Officers' Board (aptly known as the SOB), which regulates private security companies, wants to close down the Kensington program. The SOB contends that the security guards, who haven't expressed any unhappiness with their jobs, are underpaid. "I don't care that this company has reduced crime," says SOB head Don Masterson, "because they are doing it by breaking the law themselves."

The SOB has raided the security company's offices, seizing its records. Last year, an SOB official turned up unannounced at a private meeting of Kensington residents, who ordered him out. In response, the SOB has filed a defamation suit against one resident and brought charges of obstructing justice against another, Glynn Evans, who observes, "At least we give people jobs, even if their salaries are not great."

Car thefts and armed hijackings are common in South Africa, particularly in Johannesburg. Reported car hijackings in South Africa increased from 10,389 in 1995 to 13,011 in 1997. During the same period, truck hijackings rose from 1,692 to 4,296. One ANC official denied there had been a real increase in hijackings, claiming that "whites" were making fraudulent reports to collect insurance payments. Another official blamed the hijackings on what he described as the apartheid government's policy of giving hijackers immunity from prosecution. He didn't explain how a government that has been out of power for five years could give immunity to people committing carjackings now.

In response to the wave of car thefts, shopping malls and business districts in South Africa have hired security guards to patrol their parking lots. These guards are paid not by the malls or the stores but by tips from people who park in the lots. The pay must be adequate, since there seem to be plenty of security people in every lot of any size.

One high-tech solution to carjackings is satellite tracking systems. A car owner pays a monthly subscription fee for the service, which requires a transponder planted somewhere in the vehicle. If the car is stolen or hijacked, the theft is reported to a central office. The satellite immediately begins tracking the car, and security personnel and police are called in. Recoveries within 15 minutes of the theft are not uncommon. Depending on the value of the car, the cost of the tracking system may be covered by savings on auto insurance.

Like car owners, farmers have responded to crime with a new alarm system. The murder rate on South African farms, which are often targeted by criminal gangs, is 120 per 100,000, much higher than the national average. Farmers have armed themselves, installed electric fences, and purchased guard dogs, but criminals continue to find ways around these measures. Now farmhouses have been turned into fortresses, with independent radio systems linking them to other farms in the area. If a farm is attacked, an alarm is raised, and other farmers pick up their guns and come to the rescue.

A different sort of anti-crime association has emerged in downtown Johannesburg. The Central Johannesburg Partnership, a nonprofit corporation formed by business owners, provides "private urban management services" in four downtown areas totaling 50 blocks, or 10 percent of the inner city. The services include security, street cleaning, vending management, and miscellaneous maintenance tasks, such as painting light poles and electric boxes. Operating with a yearly budget of about $1 million funded by contributions from the businesses it serves, the CJP employs about 100 security guards and 30 street cleaners, with a office staff of six.

The first area managed by the CJP was the Central Improvement District, created in late 1993. In 1992 that area averaged 27 muggings a month; in all of 1997, by contrast, it had only three. Most of the people who live and work in this neighborhood are black; many are middle class, but a significant number are quite poor. The CJP's professional services contrast sharply with the protection available in many black townships, where residents have almost no confidence in the police and routinely take the law into their own hands, administering "street justice" with beatings.

CJP Chairman Neil Frasier says he doesn't have crime statistics for areas of Johannesburg outside the organization's coverage, but he is confident that "we are significantly lower." Almost every category of crime has dropped in the Central Improvement District: Armed robberies in 1997 were down 63 percent from the year before, muggings were down 73 percent, and pickpocketing was down 80 percent.

Frasier says the key to inner-city crime prevention is "the highly visible presence of security." The CJP guards all have uniforms; to increase their visibility, they wear yellow hats, belts, and arm bands. During the first six months of 1998, they arrested more than 200 people for crimes ranging from armed robbery to hijacking and turned them over to the police.

In one of the more spectacular arrests, CJP guards heard gunfire and rushed to intervene in a gang attack on an armored vehicle carrying cash. The attackers fled, but the guards pursued them. Three suspects were arrested and a fourth refused to surrender, shooting himself in the head.

Sheri Lambert, who works in the Central Improvement District, says "one gets to know the individual guards on one's usual `beat' going from parking to work in the morning and evening." Manny Da Rocha, of Quenchers Pub & Grub, found that this personal touch makes a big difference. Last year, he recalls, the security guard for his building (not a CJP employee) "enlightened me that my vehicle, driven by a stranger, was moving down the street." Da Rocha ran outside and saw one of the CJP guards "jumping into the vehicle, causing the driver to flee in fright to another vehicle waiting closeby." The CJP guard "informed me that he knew my vehicle and when he saw a stranger behind the wheel, he realized it was being stolen."

If only South Africa's politicians reacted as swiftly and effectively to crime.

Jim Peron (peron@global.co.za) is an American writer who has lived in South Africa for six years. He is the author of Die, the Beloved Country? by Amagi Books.