For years, Joe Slovo Drive (the M31) in Johannesburg has been the hunting ground of criminals who attack pedestrians and motorists with impunity. But men in lime-green T-shirts — reformed prison gangsters — have changed all that.
The residents of inner city suburbs Yeoville, Berea and Doornfontein have welcomed the men armed with sjamboks who patrol part of the M31.
“Before the men in light green occupied these robots, no one dared walk here after 6pm,” says Doornfontein resident Victor Novela. “If I did not have airtime, I never went out to buy it after 6pm. Now that these brave men are here, this area is a lot safer.”
The busy intersections on Joe Slovo Drive are crime hotspots, with an average of seven smash-and-grabs a week, according to Stephen du Preez, development director of Propertuity company.
The road connects the M1 South with Johannesburg’s city centre, the Maboneng district and Ellis Park Stadium. It runs through Houghton, Berea, Yeoville, Hillbrow and Doornfontein
“There used to be a number of people who crossed under that [railway] bridge [between Error and Nind streets] with their possessions and reached the other side with their possessions gone. It was normal, we all expected it,” says Novela.
The men are visible from the McDonald’s at the Currey Street intersection all the way up to the Abel Road intersection with Joe Slovo Drive.
Claire Wood, who uses Joe Slovo Drive to get to work and back, says: “I’ve used Joe Slovo Drive twice a day for the last eight years. It’s really the first time there’s been a noticeable drop in the number of smash-and-grabbers on the stretch between Abel Road and Doris Street.
“I was curious about how they had been organised, just because of the way they’re armed — sjamboks. The guys operating out there are very often carrying guns. But either way, it’s definitely made a difference,” says Wood.
Ward 64 councillor Matsemela Madisha says: “They have done well under the circumstances. Such an initiative was warranted given the level of crime in the area. However, it is not safe as criminals are sometimes heavily armed.”
The M31 initiative, called Urban Watch, is the brainchild of a group of convicts in Kutama Sinthumule Correctional Centre in Limpopo who founded the non-profit organisation Fear Free Life in 2004.
One of its founders, Collin Khumalo, was arrested for armed robbery and murder and sentenced to life imprisonment plus 45 years. He was released in 2013. While in prison, he initiated and led a reform programme with a group from the notorious 26 gang.
Zach Modise, the national commissioner of correctional services, said: “He approached us with a very valuable programme. They tackle the issue of guns, drugs and gangsterism in prison and instil the mentality that reformation is possible into the convicts.”
Khumalo says: “Our vision is addressing crime inside and outside of prison and developing a safer South Africa. Even though you have done something wrong, if you have paid the price and did your time, there should not be a reason that you are punished further.”
Fear Free Life’s former convicts began patrolling the streets of Johannesburg in August last year.
The phenomenon of residents taking matters into their own hands as crime increases has been dubbed “Vimba culture” — people yell “Vimba! [block]” when a perpetrator is on the loose.
Impressed by the men in lime green’s dedication, property companies in Maboneng and surrounding areas, including Mafadi, Trafalgar, Jozi Housing and Propertuity, took notice and initiated a meeting with the former convicts.
Fear Free Life and its property company partners began the Urban Watch initiative in December.
“They are not security officers but peace officers … we want people to see that we can come out of prison and be proper businessmen and live a normal life,” said Khumalo.
Du Preez added: “We have always had an issue with Joe Slovo [Drive] particularly, Abel and Joe Slovo. The area is a hotspot that averaged at least seven smash-and-grabs a week.
“People come to Maboneng on the weekend and get hit at the traffic light on their way back.”
Two men patrol near a garage in Doornfontein during the day and four men are on the night shift. The men in lime green have also cleaned a park on the corner of Joe Slovo Drive and Abel Road that was, according to many residents, a well-known danger zone.
“Our park is cleaner and we can now sit and read,” says Job Nhlapo. “This would never have happened in the past. Walking through this park was a risk, let alone casually sitting on these benches.”