Behind the barbed wire – how soaring crime affects two very different Joburg neighbourhoods
Crime anxiety is not new. But, lately, residents of the country’s economic hub have been taking safety into their own hands, participating in community safety patrols and gathering intelligence on WhatsApp groups to fight lawlessness. In a worrying trend, some turn to mob justice in frustration. To better understand how people respond to security concerns, we visited two very different suburbs to talk to residents, councillors and CPF members.
When retired journalist and popular resident Jeremy Gordin was murdered on 31 March while at home alone in Parkview, Johannesburg, fear gripped the affluent, village-like community.
Carl Chemaly, a Parkview resident of about 20 years, said he was much saddened: “Losing one of our own in such a horrific manner has shocked us all. Understandably, we are all a little more fearful now, which too is extremely sad.”
Nowhere in South Africa is immune to crime, says Chemaly, but he doesn’t want people to think this means the northern suburbs are seeing a rising crime wave.
Bridget Steer, Joburg city councillor for Ward 87, says Gordin’s murder was an isolated, opportunistic incident.
Murders are very rare in Parkview, with the SAPS’s Parkview precinct reporting zero murders in 2022 and only one or two each year for the past five years.
Crime in the suburb is low compared with most of the rest of the city. And the area’s yearly numbers have been on a downward trend. Total incidents of crime numbers dropped significantly from 2014 to 2021, and rose slightly in 2022.
Steer believes Parkview, with roughly 1,000 households, boasts one of the best police stations in Johannesburg.
“We’ve got very switched-on, hands-on people and an exceptional police station commander at the moment,” notes Steer. “The whole station is set up to run efficiently, thanks to support from the [community policing forum] and the community.”
Wayne Lurie, Parkview CPF’s acting chairperson, says the northern suburbs of Johannesburg tend to be overly dependent on private security companies to protect their homes.
My electric fence is the broken glass on top of the wall.
Though a resident may pay thousands for protection by a security company, the company’s patrol officers get paid little. The patrols are not from the community, so they’re not as invested in keeping it safe, says Lurie.
Chemaly is a director of SafeParkview, an armed response company to which about 85% of Parkview’s households subscribe.
SafeParkview membership costs R840 per month for services such as panic buttons, alarm system monitoring, home security advice and three active patrol vehicles around the clock.
Tall walls: A double-edged sword
Parkview’s homes are concealed by lush trees and high walls.
Gated home communities proliferated in Johannesburg’s predominantly white northern suburbs in the 1980s and 1990s in reaction to social change in apartheid and post-apartheid society. Many homeowners erected high walls around their properties.
Marika Benson (67), using a pseudonym for privacy reasons, has lived in Parkview for 40 years.
Benson says her house is much less kitted out with security technology than those of her neighbours, who have electric wiring atop tall walls and other apparatus.
“My electric fence is the broken glass on top of the wall,” she says, adding that she prefers lower walls that let her see her surroundings. Two people have tried to break in, but she scared them off as she was able to see them early.
As in most Joburg suburbs, original low-perimeter walls and fences are getting higher and higher, with electric fencing and barbed wire often added.
Walls have drawbacks.
“While I understand everyone’s need to feel safe, it does create an obstacle to policing,” says Steer. “Walls prevent patrolling officers from knowing what is happening inside a property, detracting from the value of patrols as a form of crime prevention and quick response.”
Lurie says gated communities can make senior citizens vulnerable because it is hard to check up on them.
In the past five months, two elderly men were murdered during home invasions in Parkview, says resident Brad Parks.
Parks would have liked to have seen more of a public outcry over these killings. Instead, he says, the reaction has been concerningly muted, with the community SafeParkview WhatsApp group giving safety information but only mentioning Gordin’s murder by name once.
The CPF holds events to engage the elderly in safety resources and initiatives, including a discussion with about 50 people in April.
Safety in community
Benson feels safe in Parkview because people in the suburb tend to care for each other.
“You can ask for sugar or an egg from a neighbour,” says Parks. “That’s quite unusual to find these days.”
Lurie doesn’t want residents to become apathetic and seal themselves off from society as service delivery – from policing to electricity supply and pothole fixing – worsens. He wants more people to take part in the CPF patrol and neighbours to keep an eye out for each other; they best know what is unusual on their streets.
Chemaly points out that residents do share a lot of information on WhatsApp groups, chatting about activities and knowing whether people are home or away.
“Thinking about the broader community rather than your little patch benefits everyone more,” says Chemaly.
A human-sized hole in the middle of the ceiling of the Protea Glen satellite police station is an indication of the brazenness of criminals in the area. The damage is the result of a break-in by criminals, who stole the only computer used by members of the local CPF.
Protea Glen is the fastest-growing suburb in Soweto.
I definitely need a police station to fight increasing crime. We have no police station.
City councillor Phelelani Sindani’s Ward 135 has 45,000 households. In Extension 44 people started occupying houses in December 2022, whereas construction of Extension 43 is being concluded and people will be moving in in May. Extensions 50 to 54 are under way and Extension 56 is in the pipeline.
“You can imagine how many houses will be under my jurisdiction by the end of the current year,” says Sindani.
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He says crime in Protea Glen is definitely on the increase. “With the huge number of houses under my watch, I definitely need a police station to fight increasing crime. We have no police station.”
Sindane says that, under law, no one should walk more than 5km to a police station. It’s just one way in which Protea Glen’s growth is not proportional to the provision of key resources, he adds.
The councillor and the CPF agree that rolling blackouts have contributed to the high crime rate in the area.
“Just this morning I received a report that my neighbour was robbed of her car at gunpoint during load shedding last night,” says Sindane.
“What we are seeing is that criminals who are targeting certain vehicles constantly consult with the load shedding schedule.”
In one extension of Protea Glen criminals recently stole electric cables during a power outage.
In December 2022 thieves descended on an Eskom electricity substation and stripped it of all its cables.
Mob violence on the rise
Mob violence against suspected criminals is on the increase.
“People resort to mob justice because the police respond very late or not at all,” says CPF secretary Trudy Jabavu.
According to the CPF, there have been two deaths in the area in the past two months and both are attributed to mob violence.
“I’m anticipating to say the reason for the mob justice has something to do with the police’s late or non-response, and that people are simply fed up,” CPF deputy chairperson Sipho Kubheka explains.
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According to CPF chair Monti Mbatha, the latest incident of mob violence, resulting in the death of a suspect, occurred a little over a week ago.
Mbatha reveals that, each month, the CPF receives reports of two to three murders in the area.
We find that when people visit the Protea South informal settlement, their vehicles are stolen as soon as the owners go inside the shacks.
The CPF is the “parent body” of five local structures: the Youth Desk, Patrollers, Sector Crime Forum, Victim Empowerment Centre and The Brigades.
The CPF in the area has 250 patrollers in total, 54 of them deployed by the CPF to local schools. Four patrollers are deployed to each school.
The Brigades deal with gender-based violence (GBV), visiting affected households.
Mbatha says GBV is very common, especially in Protea South owing to the many shebeens in the area.
In terms of common crime types, the CPF said armed robbery, car hijacking, housebreaking, GBV, mob violence, damage to property and theft topped the list.
The CPF expresses great concern for the failure of the police to protect the rights of the vulnerable in society, such as women and children, and says crimes against these groups are ever-increasing.
According to the SAPS crime statistics released by Minister Bheki Cele in November 2022, between July and September 2022, 13,000 women were victims of assault with intent to cause grievous bodily harm.
An assessment report by the CPF revealed a high level of theft from delivery vehicles at the Protea Gardens mall.
CPF secretary Jabavu says the CPF deploys some of its patrollers to try to curb criminality at the Protea Gardens shopping mall. She echoes Mbatha’s assertion that the many shebeens in Sector 1 contribute to the high levels of GBV.
The theft of motor vehicles, including e-hailing service vehicles, is also very common in Protea South, according to Mbatha.
“We find that when people visit the Protea South informal settlement, their vehicles are stolen as soon as the owners go inside the shacks.”
The most common crimes at the Protea Glen mall are commercial and fraud crimes, says Jabavu.
“You find people selling non-existent cars on social media under false pretences. Once the victim pays them, they disappear with the money. We have many such crimes here in Protea Glen.”
What is being done to address crime in Protea Glen?
While some in the community have resorted to meting out criminal acts of mob violence, the Protea Glen community is trying a number of legal measures.
Councillor Sindane said the community feels strongly about the installation of boom gates to control access to residents’ homes. There is no clear indication yet of how these will be funded.
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Mbatha says all residents are being encouraged to own whistles and to blow them in cases of emergency to raise the alarm within the community.
According to the CPF, consultative meetings between police and the community are useful for warning residents about new crime trends and about plans to tackle them.
Taking the law into one’s own hands
WhatsApp groups are being used as another form of intelligence in the fight against crime.
“Other community members can always alert you when there is a problem in your home,” says Mbatha.
But many other Protea Glen community members are frustrated and cannot be bothered with legal measures.
They have opted for mob violence because they do not have faith in the police to deal effectively with criminality.
“Taking the law into one’s own hands seems the only available solution because the police do not care,” comments resident Zandile Thomo.
“I have been a victim one too many times; I’m fed up. The law must allow us to cut their hands so that they do not steal again,” says Thamai Mofokeng.
“The police cannot protect the community and this emboldens the criminals. Mob justice might just be the deterrent we so desperately seek,” says Elizabeth Kheswa. DM168
This story first appeared in our weekly Daily Maverick 168 newspaper, which is available countrywide for R29.