Activist murder reveals Joburg street cameras are "turned off"

SAPS sources told the Mail & Guardian that the cameras had not worked for a year. (Oupa Nkosi/M&G)

SAPS sources told the Mail & Guardian that the cameras had not worked for a year. (Oupa Nkosi/M&G)

The City of Johannesburg has denied allegations from South African Police Service (Saps) officials that the CCTV cameras in the city have not been functioning for the past year.

This follows the suspected assassination of a prominent Ethiopian political activist, Gezahegn Gebremeskel.

Gebremeskel (48) was gunned down at about 5pm on April 21 in downtown Johannesburg. A police official allegedly told those closest to the victim that there was no footage of the fatal shooting because of faulty CCTV cameras.

SAPS sources told the Mail & Guardian that the cameras had not worked for a year.

The CCTV system — which is property of the City of Johannesburg — was installed in 2008 at a cost of R50‑million and is maintained at a cost of R1‑million a month.

Persecuted by the Ethiopian government, Gebremeskel fled to South Africa about 20 years ago, but remained a vocal opponent.  He reportedly died on the scene at the corner of Kerk and Polly streets — which falls within the Joburg Central policing precinct — with R15 000 in cash still on his person.

READ MORE: The assassination of Gezahegn Gebremeskel: Who killed the Ethiopian activist?

Witnesses allege the police took 40 minutes to arrive. Ethiopians in South Africa believe it to have been a political assassination. A police officer close to the case told the M&G he was similarly convinced.

The head of the Ethiopian Community Association in South Africa, Tamiru Abebe, said a police official had told him and Gebremeskel’s family that there was no CCTV footage of the incident, because none of the cameras were working.

When the M&G visited the scene 10 days after the incident, SAPS officers there made similar allegations. One said off the record that there had been no CCTV coverage in central Johannesburg for more than a year, blaming Democratic Alliance mayor Herman Mashaba’s administration. 

“CCTV is not working because Mashaba cancelled the contract for Johannesburg,” the police officer said.

“The community doesn’t like to talk to police to identify suspects, so we really relied on the CCTV [footage] but that is not there anymore.”

But city spokesperson Luyanda Longwe has denied the allegations, stating that faulty security cameras were repaired immediately.

“For example, out of the 33 cameras installed in the Hillbrow area, 28 are fully functional as at the time of reply.” She said malfunctions were inevitable, owing to “natural elements and damage [or] theft to either electrical or fibre cabling, fixtures and even the CCTV cameras themselves”.

The allegations of Johannesburg’s CCTV cameras failing are not the first of their kind. In September 2017, multiple sources reportedly told Moneyweb that the city’s CCTV network was nonfunctional, because Mashaba’s administration had cancelled its maintenance contract with Omega Risk Security — which had installed the system — with no new contract in place.

Moneyweb reported it had obtained photo evidence and seen video footage showing of the 29 stations used to monitor live CCTV feeds at the city’s Integrated Intelligent Operations Centre only one was manned. The city, however, maintained that the monitoring stations were, in fact, manned.

Longwe told the M&G that when Omega Risk Security’s contract expired, the monitoring centre was relocated from the central business district to the Intelligent Operations Centre in Martindale. The CCTV is now maintained by city-owned entity Metro Trading Company, which has a panel of companies that render services to it.

The CCTV streams were monitored around the clock by 48 trained operators, with a support staff of 28 Johannesburg metro police department officers, she said.  The city denied the M&G’s request to visit the monitoring centre, citing security risks. Asked whether it had footage of the shooting, the city directed the inquiry to the police. 

The M&G sent detailed questions to the police about officers’ off-the-record allegations about the CCTV cameras, asking whether they had footage of Gebremeskel’s murder. The police said only that the investigation was ongoing and that “the CCTV cameras are installed and serviced by the City of Johannesburg”. 

Statistics from Saps show contact crimes (murder, sexual offences, attempted murder, assault and robbery) reported to the Joburg Central precinct decreased from 6 055 in the 2007/2008 period to 5 301 for the 2016/2017 period. Still, the number of contact crimes for the latter period rose by 415 from 2015/2016. Murders were up from 75 to 88.

Ethiopia has a dismal human rights record. According to the 2018 Human Rights Watch World Report, the ruling Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front coalition occupies all parliamentary seats. The regime has all but destroyed any political opposition, detaining and harassing anyone who does not actively support it. 

Gebremeskel is survived by his wife and two young children. 

Heidi Swart

Heidi Swart

Heidi Swart has a background in social work and social research. She made a career change to journalism in 2010 when she was accepted for a cadetship at Independent Newspapers. This involved a year of in-house training with the Cape Argus and Independent's investigations unit, under the auspices of veteran investigator Ivor Powell. Following this, she worked at the Cape Community Newspapers for six months, a branch of Independent Newspapers. She completed a six-month internship at the Mail & Guardian's centre for investigative journalism, amaBhungane. She is currently the Eugene Saldanha Fellow for social justice reporting. Read more from Heidi Swart

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