Hillbrow: Where cops do the work for drug lords

The suburb processes migrants and a large proportion of the country’s drug imports. (Rob White)

The suburb processes migrants and a large proportion of the country’s drug imports. (Rob White)

Hillbrow is striking from afar. Its tower and apartment blocks form ­Johannesburg's iconic jagged skyline as displayed on postcards and glimpsed from the cloistered northern suburbs.

But up close, the tower is obscured by tightly packed apartment blocks, many dirt-streaked and dilapidated. The tower's pink advertising ball sits low and heavy on the horizon.
This one kilometre square piece of land, one of the densest in Africa, is the stuff of nightmare and legend.

Hillbrow is where you get hijacked, raped and murdered. It's where uncontrolled revellers drop fridges from high-rises on New Year's Eve and the middle class dare not tread.

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That was the narrative of the 1990s and early 2000s, at least. These days, you're more likely to hear about community initiatives, walking tours, the reduced rate of violent crime and peaceful new year's celebrations.

Thursday's release of crime statistics for April 2012 to March 2013 for the area showed a mixed picture, but there was still a general downward trend in crime in the once-notorious neighbourhood. This was despite the inner-city suburb, like the rest of the country, experiencing a spike in murder and robbery with aggravating circumstances after a steady decline. Murder was up from 56 cases in the previous period to 63, but attempted murder dropped from 205 to 186 cases.

"Hillbrow is one of the stations that is doing very well in terms of crime prevention in the province," said provincial spokesperson Brigadier Neville Malila.

But the good news a la Jacob Zuma comes off a low base. Hillbrow still has an alarmingly high rate of crime for such a small area. That's if we are to believe crime statistics six to 18 months out of date and susceptible to an unknown degree of massaging by a local police service widely believed to be riddled with corruption.

It's a charge that Police Minister Nathi Mthethwa's spokesperson, Zweli Mnisi, riles at. "Tell me who is corrupt, and I will follow it up," he said. The head of the Hillbrow community policing forum, Denzil Goldstone, has been accused of various crimes by residents.

In a neighbourhood that must rely on civic partnership, policing forum volunteers and other community members allege that he runs a brothel from his Ambassador Hotel.

Examples of police corruption
Station commander Brigadier Vukile Ntandane, is also under suspicion. According to community members, he is allegedly too close for comfort to known criminal overlords.

Both Ntandane and Goldstone refused to talk to the Mail & Guardian about the allegations. The provincial spokesperson finally issued a statement after much prodding to say the allegation about Goldstone would be investigated but he did not respond to questions about the commander's relationship with known criminals.

As for corruption, Malila, like Mnisi, understandably called for reported incidents. But to give specific examples of police corruption is difficult when, according to community members, it is a pervasive fact of life in Hillbrow. Crime may be down, but officers have been co-opted by those behind drug dealing, prostitution and illegal gambling, they claim.

And they're not being paranoid. The Institute for Security Study's Gareth Newham said clean officers in Hillbrow did not stand much of a chance: "Hillbrow station has a particular problem with corruption."

He should know. Newham spent five years there from 1999 to 2004, intensively researching police corruption.

He noted several aspects to the problem, including the massive market for illegal activities that made arrests meaningless as the perpetrator would be replaced immediately.

Then there is the demotivation that sets in with poor management. Though Hillbrow has experienced good station commanders in the past, more often than not they've been ineffectual.

Innocuous
It's difficult to gauge the current situation, but Thursday's statistics revealed a decrease in crimes heavily dependent on police action for detection, such as drug-related crimes and the illegal possession of a firearm.

But most of all, there is the sheer wealth of organised criminals.

In 1999, about 80% of all drugs coming into South Africa were processed through Hillbrow, said Newham. Today, drug lords don't live there, but will do whatever it takes to get the right officers on their side.

"They pay good money to have cops move drugs around," Newham said.

Often it's easier. "They literally offer them their entire salary or many times more to do things that are relatively innocuous, like telling them when there will be a raid.

"If you don't co-operate with them, you can find your life in danger. Other cops don't trust you, and will also start laying false complaints against you to get you out of there."

Massive shift
It is a sobering assessment, but a walk through Hillbrow's most dangerous streets proves the point. Soper Road and Fife Avenue, for example, are teeming with police vehicles, but they seem to do nothing while drug deals and more take place before their eyes. The Mail & Guardian team was offered cocaine in full view of a police van. "You arrest a drug dealer, they're back on the streets the next day," ­several street patrollers said.

In Pullinger Kop Park, children play alongside gaunt junkies and drug dealers. Police drive by ­routinely and do nothing about loitering or the exchange of money and packages.

Ultimately, for things to change requires a massive shift from the top: police at the coalface in Hillbrow are simply overwhelmed by the odds stacked against them.

Newham points out that the problem lies with political appointees in senior positions, who don't understand the requirements of the job.

Hillbrow, for example, needs "radically good crime intelligence" to shut down sophisticated crime lords. "But then, you have someone like Richard Mdluli in place," he said, referring to the scandal-plagued intelligence boss as an example of unhelpful political deployments.

For now, Hillbrow residents must be content with the gradual improvement the crime statistics reveal, while living with the reality of a supposedly tainted police force.

Verashni Pillay

Verashni Pillay

Verashni Pillay is the former editor-in-chief of the Mail & Guardian, and inaugural editor-in chief of Huffington Post South Africa. She has worked at various periods as senior reporter covering politics and general news, specialises in mediamanagement and relishes the task of putting together the right team to create compelling and principled journalism across multiple platforms.  Read more from Verashni Pillay

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