Maverick Citizen

SOCIAL STABILITY

Community steps in to revive KZN’s Westmead economic hub after July 2021 unrest

Community steps in to revive KZN’s Westmead economic hub after July 2021 unrest
The July unrest had a profound impact on the Westmead business district and surrounding areas with many buildings severely looted and some even burnt to the ground. The Greater Westmead Association has called businesses and surrounding communities to partner to create a safe and cleaner area. (Photo: Jan Marè)

A KwaZulu-Natal community is combining hi-tech surveillance technology with active citizen involvement to bring stability back to its business and residential areas in the wake of the devastating July 2021 unrest.

KwaZulu-Natal is still battling to recover from the crippling economic and social impact of the July 2021 unrest in which thousands of businesses were looted, resulting in permanent shutdowns and the loss of lives and livelihoods for hundreds of thousands of people.

Coupled with persistent floods in the past four years, business districts and communities across the province are a shadow of their former selves.

The Greater Westmead area is a business district that employs people from surrounding communities. The founders of The Greater Westmead Association believe cleaning up the community is one of the first steps to restoring the area after the impact of the July Riots and economic decline. (Photo: Greater Westmead Association)

One such area is Greater Westmead, Pinetown, which includes Maxmead, Gillitts Road Industrial Park and Mahogany Ridge. The area is home to multiple factories for local and multinational corporations. 

Now, a non-profit called Younited Communities is leading crime prevention efforts in one of the hardest-hit economic hubs. It’s a tough task but co-founder Jan Marè says they are eating away at the mammoth job one bite at a time.

Marè says one of the hardest tasks is getting corporates to understand how investing in the wellbeing of surrounding communities would help establish Greater Westmead as an industrial jewel of KZN. 

“To increase the value offering, demand and new investment into the area, we must unite this community behind one common cause,” says Marè.

Marè is one of three founders of  Younited Communities – the organisation has been around for years, but they only really executed their vision in 2022 after realising the impact on communities of the polycrisis of corruption, inefficient service delivery, crime and unemployment.

Through strategic partnerships with local law enforcement agencies and proactive community engagement, we’ve witnessed a notable reduction in crime rates and a visible improvement in the cleanliness and safety of the areas,” says Marè.

A patched-up road, infrastructure damage post floods and July looting have left the business district unsightly and uninviting to new businesses. (Photo Supplied: Greater Westmead Association)

Drones that have thermal sensing and automatic number plate recognition have played a crucial role in decreasing crime in the area. The association’s armed security officers follow up on suspicious activities and call the relevant authorities. (Photo: Greater Westmead Association)

Marè, with experience in community security and development, founded the NPO with Grant Hancock, who owned a mobile security company and now owns a software design company along with Barry East, who also designed the software that’s used to monitor businesses digitally, SNIPR, along with OneSpace, an app that helps communities and businesses to be more secure via information sharing.

Marè says they believe in a holistic approach to crimefighting – “first, let’s clean up the streets, clear out overgrown greenbelts, parks, verges etc, reducing the possibility of potential criminals hiding in dark, overgrown areas. Furthermore, with a clean and well-maintained community, the message is clear: this community is clean and we will keep it this way. 

“In addition, due to the fact that we have created local employment through our community-based projects, we have instilled a deeper sense of self-worth and pride to work for what you want, and therefore our employees have taken ownership of what they have achieved and will defend their workplace if called upon to do so,” says Marè.

Westmead is surrounded by townships and rural communities such as Hammarsdale, Tshelimnyama, Cato Ridge and others. Marè says they have found common ground in that everyone wants to have an income and work and live in a clean, safe environment. 

“We are in the process of finalising our partnership with various non-profits and public benefit organisations specialising in trauma-informed support services, skills development programmes and community-building initiatives, with the united aim to instil a sense of hope, empowerment and resilience in our communities, enabling them to envision and work towards a brighter future.”

westmead hub

A clean-up team clears stormwater drains in Westmead, 30 minutes from Durban. (Photo: Greater Westmead Association)

The initiatives include community safety and security training, disaster management, crime prevention and motor vehicle accident management; anti-poverty skills development, including small business development and coaching; environmental rehabilitation and early childhood intervention. 

“If we are to change the trajectory of the current socioeconomic deficit in our country, we must turn the tide on the sub-par education of children received across the board. Every child deserves quality educators and education. Therefore, our educational upliftment programme has a clear focus on public school improvement, starting with the upliftment of the educators, then the education and the facilities in which they educate.”

Digital surveillance technology

Marè says the partnership with OneSpace is a game-changer as users communicate on the app if they notice suspicious activity or if there is something such as a broken pipe or a hedge that needs trimming because it has become a hotspot for crime.

“We have leveraged this for the good by enhancing our crime prevention efforts through innovative technology solutions that begin in the palm of your hand… hi-tech camera surveillance. And in some cases we’ve also integrated it all with eyes-in-the-sky using market-leading drone technology,” says Marè.

Co-founder and software designer Barry East says they are aware that digital surveillance and licence plate recognition technology can be abused, but they have put in multiple measures to safeguard against this – general users can’t access the information and they work within the confines of the law. The technology has helped crack high-profile cases in which police asked for assistance.

Marè says the reception from communities has been overwhelmingly positive: “Residents (are) embracing these tools as valuable resources in firstly uniting their community, and in so doing, enhancing their safety, security, market value and self-worth.”

He says they have fostered collaboration and information-sharing and aligned with various public and private sector organisations that specialise in the attainment of justice. 

They also work with the victims of crime and with perpetrators in a “deeply powerful way that has seen the re-offence rate drop significantly”. 

“For us, it’s not just about the successful conviction of a criminal, it’s about the potential restoration of the criminal into a law-abiding citizen… we must do all that we can to achieve this if we are to do anything meaningful about the rising crime rate in South Africa,” says Marè. DM

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