Opinion pieces

To Whom It May Concern

There is something that is happening in my “hood” (the terminology my daughter uses for my mainly white, middle-class suburb), and that could be happening in yours, that is worrying me. For the past six months ago our neighbourhood experienced a spike in crime. The modus operandi was strikingly similar – a window pane lifted to enable entry and the silent removal of laptops, cell-phones and other forms of technology. The owners and owners’ dogs would sleep through the home invasion and the alarm system would not trigger. Now, this is indeed disturbing and unsettling and the fact that no arrests are made does not help.

But what is in fact worrying me, perhaps even more than the increasing frequency of crime in my area, is some of the responses to the crime. In response to the escalating crime, a meeting was convened in our neighbourhood by some concerned citizens with links to one or two of the security firms. In this meeting the growing threat of crime was discussed and the need was identified for the community to rally and protect themselves. At the meeting a number of questions were raised to the convenors such as: “how can we trust you? We do not know you or each other?” “How do we know that the security company/ies are not behind the spike in crime and are simply trying to grow their market and market share?” “What is the role of the existing security companies and the community watch that already exists?” “Where are SAPS and what are they doing?” Despite none of the questions being satisfactorily addressed sufficient consensus was deemed reached and a Neighbourhood Watch duly established. The Neighbourhood Watch requested cell-phone details and addresses from everyone and set up two WhatsApp groups – one for community chatting and the other for emergencies.

I belong to the newly established Neighbourhood Watch WhatsApp groups. Every-day I read messages placed by various group members – some of them are helpful: community members offering to share mulch for gardens; checking-in on each other if an alarm goes off; mobilising the community to support the fire-fighters etc. But equally, there are some really concerning posts, such as:

  • “Coloured female and white male walking up the road to the church – stopped them and they reported they were on the way to the church for assistance”;
  • “please do not assist them, if you need to assist them please give them a voucher for the night shelter”;
  • “dog shot in my yard last night”;
  • “two suspicious black males walking past House A carrying a suspicious bag”
  • “confirmed males are gardeners’ friends in House A”
  • “confirming that the dog was shot by a security person” (no further feedback);
  • “can’t stand the dustbin pickers – taken this photo of one of them – he did not like it and acted aggressively towards me”
  • “dustbin pickers could be fronts for the criminals”
  • “thank you to the Neighbourhood Watch, there were no dustbin pickers out there this Thursday – our streets feel much cleaner”
  • “two maids loitering in my street – must be up to no good”
  • “escorted a car load of people out of the neighbourhood” and so the list continues.

When one interacts with the WhatsApp Group challenging emerging paranoia and pleading members to focus on the criminal threat and not become dispassionate towards the poor and homeless one is soon silenced and the concerning behaviour continues. A few people eventually begin to dominate the social media platform. One begins to fear for any minority group within the community – what happens if one’s black or coloured child or friend is accosted by the Neighbourhood Watch?

I have shared my concerns with friends and relatives in other parts of the province and country and the scary fact is that my experiences are not limited to my “hood”. The newspapers also report on similar developments, such as the “Green Dompas” in Worcester. I am concerned for so many reasons:

  • How does one test the credibility of these Neighbour Hood Watches?
  • How democratic are these structures – where does the accountability lie?
  • How do we prevent these structures from being run or hijacked by racist or even criminal interest groups?
  • How safe is one neighbourhood for minorities in the community?
  • Is there a difference between the drivers for Neighbourhood Watches in South African middle-class neighbourhoods and vigilante groupings in poor neighbourhoods?
  • Is the advent of Neighbourhood Watches not driving deeper and deeper chasms rather than constructively building bridges within South African society?

If I consider the “drivers” behind Neighbourhood Watches then I could suggest factors such as: growing crime; weak policing capacity; corruption within SAPS; disaffected ex-SADF soldiers claiming a niche market; fear and paranoia. The challenge is to address both the drivers but also the community response to the advent of “Neighbourhood Watches” and vigilantism. Currently, communities are handing over power to Neighbourhood Watches as a result of fear and insecurity. The “other” becomes a threat and communities “sanitise” themselves of everyone perceived as “other” or “not belonging”. In the long-term this approach is not sustainable as neighbourhoods attempt to act as “islands” outside of a context of unacceptably high levels of inequality and social and economic marginalisation in our society. I suggest that what is needed is to support active Community Policing Forums whereby communities feel that they are being listened to and that their security needs will be addressed. An investigation into security companies behind the establishment of Neighbourhood Watches should be instigated to identify any conflicting or negative interests. Furthermore, the fertile ground in which Neighbourhood Watches have sprouted also needs attentions – a greater focus must be placed on healing the divisions of the past and creating a caring and compassionate society. Religious and other social leaders should partner with government in dialoguing with communities and addressing attitudes that perpetuate hate, conflict and discrimination in our society!

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