On foot between the shacks

It’s early on Saturday night, and volunteers are topping up their cellphone airtime before setting out to patrol Khayelitsha’s toughest areas.Together with a handful of police officers and reservists, the volunteers will weave their way on foot from around 7pm to 1am through the tightly packed shacklands of Nkanini — a dumping ground for bodies, according to some residents — Kuyasa and Harare, Site B and Site C.

“Sometimes it’s dangerous when we arrive at shebeens. They are drunk and ready to fight us. If you do patrols, you are staking your life,” says Vusi Madalane. But, as one of the 80 or so volunteers, he joined the project to help protect his community.

 Since patrols started in December the team walking the beat in Harare has recovered dozens of dangerous and illegal weapons.

“Some are very happy [with the patrols], but some others hate us,” says local coordinator Eunice Vutuse. “The skollies really don’t like us,” smiles Zwelinzima Tyhaniti.

 The patrols are one leg of a multimillion-rand initiative, dubbed “Violence Prevention through Urban Upgrading [VPUU]”, between the Cape Town administration and the German Development Bank. Urban design and a fund for projects by Khayelitsha organisations are the other components of the bilateral agreement signed in 2004.

The civic patrols emerged as the most urgent need during widespread consultations with residents, more than 500 local businesses (mostly woman-owned micro enterprises) and community groups. Residents identified priority areas.

Assistant Commissioner David Mzilikazi Molo, responsible for all of Khayelitsha’s police, says murder remains the top priority, followed by armed robbery.

But he says the number of killings has decreased compared to a few years ago, when it was not unusual to have 16 murders over a weekend. In fact, “it’s now common in Khayelitsha that we don’t have a murder over the weekend”.

Molo says an important reason for the drop in crime, including assault and petty crimes, is improved relations between police and the community.

Residents will tell you that a handful of years ago people frequently resorted to vigilante retribution rather than call police, who often failed to arrive or simply released suspects. But today police and National Prosecuting Authority officials work together to ensure

suspects accused of serious violent crime are not simply released back into the community.

 Molo has regular meetings with community groups. And joint ­community police patrols have become a crucial tool in crime prevention across Khayelitsha.

Joint patrols of shebeens are a case in point. Police long ago identified shebeens as crime hot spots. But acting against taverners, seizing their liquor and closing down shops swallowed much of the scarce police resources.

Instead, community groups negotiated a code of conduct with the taverners: no drug dealing, no selling of liquor to minors and early closing times. Now most shebeens are voluntarily shut for business by 8pm. Community patrols monitor this. “We no longer have to focus just on shebeens, but can focus on protecting the lives of our community,” says Molo.

 Former Khayelitsha community policing forum member Mbuyseli Mboqwana, speaking in his personal capacity, says drafting shebeens into the fight against crime has left some tavern patrons disgruntled. “People are angry, saying that in other townships like Gugulethu or Motherwell in PE [Port Elizabeth] they can enjoy themselves until 3am.”

But there has been a general improvement in Khayelitsha’s crime levels, he says, although alcohol abuse remains a major problem, particularly among the youth. The habit is frequently financed through cellphone robberies and petty theft. “Many women in Khayelitsha are not comfortable to wear their marriage rings or earrings — such small things,” he adds.

Poverty and unemployment permeate Khayelitsha. Because it is one of the presidential urban renewal zones, police have received extra resources such as vehicles and staff. Government has built a magistrate’s court, social services offices and low-cost housing, while the construction of a new railway station is planned.

 The multimillion-rand, five-year VPUU project uses social engagement and town planning as tools in fighting crime. This echoes the social crime prevention principles outlined in the National Crime Prevention Strategy, which recommends community policing and environmental factors such as streetlights to ensure township residents’ safety after dark.

The VPUU’s German team-leader, Michael Krause, says a series of “active boxes” — spaza shops doubling as safe houses and community patrol bases — are planned along the main pedestrian routes to and from stations and taxi ranks. They will be open 24 hours a day to allow unquestioned access by anyone who feels threatened.

 A detailed business plan to develop safe access routes and a trading precinct at the future Kuyasa railway station was submitted to the national treasury last month. Sixteen urban development projects were submitted in August.

 Project officials hope the initiative will create a blueprint for urban design that avoids pitfalls like public amenities left unused because they are nowhere near where people are and unlit, dangerous streets or transport hubs which turn into crime hot spots.

 The patrols are part of the project’s support measures. As the other segments come on-stream, weekly meetings between volunteers and police are held to update information, redirect patrol routes and assess changes in crime levels.

 In time, the volunteers will become eligible for skills training, based on the number of shifts done. But for now resources are scarce. There are a few hiccups at this early stage. The base is an empty container. Volunteers’ cellphone airtime is not compensated, nor has clothing been supplied to identify the volunteers.

“But we’re doing the patrols anyway,” says one of the volunteers. For them, it’s about safer neighbourhoods — now.

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