Police reservists are well trained and dedicated, and they cost the country nothing. So why are there so few?
One would think that in a crime-ridden country like South Africa a police reservist would be easy to come by.
But all a BlackBerry Messenger broadcast, a Facebook status update and some phone calls bring forth are a few people who "used to be reservists" – one of them a girlfriend of a reservist who signed up 15 years ago but hasn't "done any follow-ups since" because he "got flak" from his family and "some police people", who thought the volunteers were trying to take away their jobs.
I eventually found Dave Lesley (66). A Durban businessperson by day, he has been a reservist by night and on weekends for about 20 years.
In that time, he's regularly clocked more than 100 hours a month (16 hours a month is mandatory), has been shot at several times and has seen a few of his peers die in the line of duty.
The morning after I interviewed him, Lesley called me to tell me he had spent much of the previous night dealing with the aftermath of a hijacking, in which the victim was left wandering the streets half-naked.
"I just want you to know that this is the kind of stuff we're dealing with," he said. "We don't have a choice but to get involved."
Post-democracy, Lesley and a few of his friends were part of the army. They volunteered to assist the police patrolling an area in Hillcrest.
"There was a whole bunch of us – we only had one police van out at night patrolling the area with two policemen in it.
"I suggested that if us troopies volunteered we would have more people, and they agreed.
"We had two vans going up and down, one with policemen and one with troopies, then someone came along and said you can't do this until you join as a reservist, so we did."
Lesley says that being a reservist entails undergoing regular and intensive training.
"We are very well trained, perhaps better than some policemen even. The training is ongoing and we take written exams.
"There's a new shooting programme we're required to go through at the moment and, if you haven't done it, they won't issue you with a firearm, they'll only allow you to work in the charge office, which is understandable – I still have to go through this programme, so I'm not currently working [as a reservist]."
He admits that he's heard rumours that the government wants to "get rid of" reservists.
"I just pray they don't. We aren't costing the government anything; all we cost them is our petrol – we are the cheapest crime prevention system they have in this country."
But at a police station in KwaZulu-Natal, where I enquire about signing up, the officer in charge informs me that there's currently a moratorium on the intake of reservists.
He tells me to return in February when the regulations will be substantially more formal. He explains that he has just a handful of reservists on his system because the others didn't clock the required monthly hours and were automatically kicked off by the computer.
According to Minister of Police Nathi Mthethwa, a moratorium on the recruitment of reservists was only in place from April 1 2009 until December 10 2009.
"However, since the moratorium was lifted, the South African Police Service has not enlisted new reservists pending the review of the reservist system," he stated in response to a parliamentary question posed by Democratic Alliance MP Dianne Kohler Barnard in April.
The review had since been finalised, he said, and he had approved the reservist policy framework.
"The South African Police Service is in the process of implementation of the revised reservist system and it is envisaged that structured provincial recruitment drives for reservists will commence in due course," Mthethwa added.
Brian Jones, the chief executive officer of a community crime prevention organisation, the South African Community Action Network, says the review was a much-needed one.
"If I could, I would wave a magic wand to get more members of the public to volunteer their time at their local police station," he says.
"[But this would be] in order to deal with the more day-to-day tasks – taking of statements in the community service centre, helping with secretarial duties, helping to alleviate the immense load of administrative duties and court process flows that police stations have to deal with on a day-to-day basis.
"But when most people talk about being a police reservist they think you need to be an A-class one, getting into a police vehicle, being shot at ... Although there are different classes of reservists, the biggest value the community can add to police services is by assisting with day-to-day menial tasks so that the guys who are permanently employed can be out on the streets, policing them, because that requires a certain kind of person.
"There's super-interesting work a reservist can do – crime mapping, crime analysis, crime intelligence gathering – there's so much they can do to assist the police, if they have time on their hands to give."
According to Jones, many police reservists sign up because they believe they'll get a permanent job down the line.
But Mthethwa's spokesperson, Zweli Mnisi, told the Mail & Guardian that from the onset the reservist system was never introduced as a stepping stone to securing permanent employment.
"Instead it was aimed at allowing citizens to volunteer their time to assist the police in fighting crime.
"When reservists signed up as volunteers, they signed agreements which clearly stated that they were volunteering their services to the police and that there was no expectation of employment nor remuneration."
More than a decade ago, Jones was an A-class reservist. But when a colleague of his was shot dead while responding to an emergency, he began re-evaluating his reasons for signing up, and became instrumental in initiating the community action network.
"I looked in the mirror and asked myself what I wanted to achieve, and I found that I wasn't really doing what I wanted to achieve," he said.
"I wanted my whole community to start acting like a community, but I was running around with lights and sirens and a 9mm on my side on Friday and Saturday nights
"A police reservist assumes the role of supporting the police; because it's voluntary it's not his first priority. You have to ask yourself why you want to be one."
For Lesley (whose marriage, he says, ended as a result of the number of hours he spent on the street) the answer to that question is simple: "There's people out there who need help and as long as I'm capable and fit to do this, I will. The reward is the satisfaction you feel when you help other people."