Yeoville can police itself, thank you

Rockey Street, Yeoville’s busy thoroughfare, is still bustling during the lockdown. Even though all its bars, restaurants and trading stores are closed, three large supermarkets — Shoprite, Super Saver and Boxer — are open during daylight hours. Long, orderly queues have formed outside the doors of each shop, as residents wait for hours for their chance to replenish their dwindling supplies of essential groceries.

Joseph Dube and his team of 20 volunteers, each clad in bright orange polo shirts, are the reason those queues are so orderly. He is the chair of Yeoville’s community policing forum, which has been leading the efforts to enforce the national lockdown in Yeoville.

Starting from about 10am, the team patrol the streets of the Johannesburg suburb and station marshalls outside each supermarket to make sure there is no trouble in the queue.

They try to get people to maintain physical distance, with mixed results: they break up fights and defuse disagreements; and they gently persuade families and groups of friends who are violating the conditions of the lockdown to go home before the police have to get involved.

One marshall holds a sjambok, but Dube — a lifelong advocate for strict arms controls — says it is never used.

“One of the things we are trying to avoid is that we don’t have police coming in with their rubber bullets, shooting,” said Dube, gesturing towards the neighbouring suburb, Hillbrow, where police have been using rubber bullets and sjamboks to keep people at home.

“People are listening. But now and again they will tell you we want to stand outside,” he said.

Only at 6pm do the team go home, although they will do one last patrol around the neighbourhood. “At around 6pm the police change shifts. There’s that gap where there’s no police on the street. We try to close that gap, get people into their houses.”

Community policing forums, which are recognised in South Africa’s legislation, function as a kind of bridge between the police and the areas they are supposed to patrol.

In Yeoville, that means that if residents see something going wrong, they might approach Dube instead of going to the police. “It is not necessarily us telling the police. It’s the community that will send us messages saying this business is operating, go and hit them.”

In one example, Dube received messages from residents that a local bottle store was still operating, in violation of lockdown regulations. He coordinated with the police who raided the premises, confiscated all the stock and loaded it on the back of a big truck and four vans. In another, Dube had to persuade an enthusiastic pastor that he was not permitted to preach to the queues outside the supermarkets.

“I told him that ‘no, you are not supposed to be outside, there’s a lockdown so you can’t be here. Either you have to be buying or you go home’. He would not move. So I called the cops and they came. The senior cop said we should arrest him. I said let’s talk to him, let’s reason with him. Then he left.”

Dube has been with the community policing forum since 2013, and this is his second term as chair. Neither he nor his team get paid for their services — they all have day jobs. Dube’s day job is as an activist, and he is focusing on international nuclear disarmament initiatives.

The 53-year-old is hoping that the lockdown will not continue for too long, or that Yeoville’s residents will need less management as the weeks go by. He is exhausted, and he needs to do his other job.

“Now we’ve just had payday, so people have money, so it’s very busy. We hope that if the numbers on the street become small, then we might as well stay home, so we don’t expose ourselves [to the virus].”

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Simon Allison
Simon Allison
Africa Editor for @MailandGuardian. Also @ISSAfrica.

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