by Raquel De Canha
Crime has for many years been a troubling shadow that looms over South Africa. A group of individuals in Mayfair have decided that crime in their area is too great a task for the police to tackle alone. It is here that many community members choose to take an active approach to the safety of their neighbourhood. While this can be seen as a noble cause, it has proven difficult to navigate a relationship with the community, the police and those involved in community policing and this is very evident in the Brixton area.
Another busy Friday night at the Brixton police station, it is 11pm and already scores of people are filling up in the entrance to the station. A police officer walks in shoving a man through the room as he walks past, people tear their attention away from what is in front of them to his cuffed hands. He tries to hide his face but in that second nobody seems to care and return to demanding attention from those behind the counter.
In a sea of uniforms there are a few men and woman who have offered their time to come out on the weekend to help lighten the load. Most of them also form part of the neighbourhood watch in the Mayfair and Mayfair West region and take shifts in the evenings patrolling the area. These are some the members of the Brixton Community Policing Forum (CPF).
The Brixton CPF are ordinary people taking time out of their lives to keep their community safe, a community made up mostly of foreign nationals and a community that traditionally does not trust the local police. More often then not it is members of the CPF who are first on the scene and who residents will call when they need assistance.
Every first Tuesday of the month those involved in the CPF for Ward 69, which consists of Mayfair, Crosby, Brixton, Melville, Vrededorp and Auckland Park, meet at the Brixton police station. All members sit around a table in one of the station’s boardrooms, along with members of the Brixton police, to discuss crime in the area and possible solutions. It is at this forum that community members come to air their grievances and seek advice or assistance from the CPF as well as the police. These range from issues such as looting to crime tip-offs and possible solutions to these problems. The group discusses the crimes that were reported over the past month, looking for any patterns and possible strategies to tackle these crimes.
At a CPF meeting, some members of the police force are attentive while others sit slouched against the wall on their cellphones. This is until a community member suggests that the police are not doing enough. Suddenly the tension in the room increases and the chairperson of the CPF, Adiel Majam, has to ensure that the meeting remains calm.
“The reality is people are angry and expect immediate attention and as a chairperson I cannot be taking sides,” says Majam. He goes on to explain that his role is to foster a relationship between the community and the police. This is the best way to help the CPF get what they require from the police.
The police station is located in Brixton in the western part of Johannesburg. It was recognised as a low-income “whites only” area during the apartheid era. During the 1970s and 1980s the Brixton station was well known for its Murder and Robbery unit. It was seen as a tough unit and was feared by many in Johannesburg because of rumours of torture at the station. In 2001 it was forced to shut down as part of a plan to transform the police and close units that were believed to be inefficient.
“There has been a clear transformation in the police in recent years, new policies have been introduced around the constitution and the SAPS has become a service that is demilitarised,” explains Warrant Officer Aboo Mohamed.
Today the community is racially mixed. Tertiary institutions surround the area and as a result the suburb is inhabited by many students. Today the station looks towards transforming not just internally but also transforming its relationship with the community, and welcomes the introduction of bodies like the CPF to aid them in achieving these goals.
“It really is heroic what these men and women do,” says Mohamed. Mohamed is a police reservist and member of the Mayfair and Brixton CPF. He joined the community watch in 1994 and chose to become a police reservist in 1995.
Mohamed has lived in Mayfair for over 20 years and has no plans to leave the area despite the negative perception of Mayfair and the current crime increase. “I have lived many places but I somehow always land up back in Mayfair. This will always be home.” Mohamed believes that because the area is so central, the relationship he has with the community, the memories it holds as well as its proximity to mosques, Mayfair is the perfect place for him and his family.
With South Africa’s high crime rate, the concept of having neighbourhood watches and community police forums is not new. Like Mohamed, for some, being a part of community watches is a way to help combat crime in their communities and monitor the performance of the local police stations.
Across the road from the Mohameds’ home is a small supermarket. During the day customers roam in and out of the store freely. However, at 5pm the owner Mohammad Hisham closes the store’s security gates. He carries on trading into the night with people passing cash through the security gates in exchange for goods.
Hisham explains that this wasn’t always the case. When he first moved to Mayfair from Bangladesh and opened the store, he would leave the gates open until they called it a night. But, in the three years that he has been working here, they have been attacked more than 20 times and have had countless instances of shoplifting. This resulted in them having to serve people through the security gates for safety.
In broken English, Hisham says by closing these security gates he loses business but he has to choose between his safety and making money. “Customers don’t like to come here if the gate is closed, but if we don’t close it, we get trouble,” says Hisham.
While criminals plague shop owners like Hisham, he says the only police office he will call for help is Warrant Officer Mohamed, who he calls “uncle”. “If I have a problem I call uncle, some people if they call the police they never come. They [criminals] rob you, they run away go home and relax and only then the police come. ”
Because of their disillusionment towards the police, it is people like these who choose to not report crimes. “Criminals will often target certain shop owners because they know that they will not report it. They choose to not report it either because they feel the police will harass them or they will not come at all,” explains Mohamed.
According to Stats SA, crimes in the Brixton area have over the past 10 years been steadily decreasing. In the past year, however, there has been an increase in reported crime, to 766 crimes in 2015 from the previous year.
There are some crimes that are more reliable than others when it comes to how they affect crime statistics, says Johan Burger, a senior researcher for the crime and justice programme at the Institute for Security Studies (ISS).
When looking at the statistics one should look at the types of crimes that are reported, these are either what is known as social public crime or property crimes. Social public crime includes murder, common assault, assault with intention to cause grievous bodily harm and sexual offences. Property crimes include robbery, theft of motor vehicles and stock theft. More often than not property crimes will be reported for insurance purposes, making them the most reliable statistics to look at, Burger says. Social public crimes are less reliable, with the exception of murder as this needs to be reported for death certificate purposes.
In the Brixton area, there has been a stable trend in property crimes. In the past five years most of these crimes have experienced changes both positive and negative as CPF chairperson Majam says: “Brixton crime has experienced peaks and valleys over the past couple of years.”
“The best way to look at crime stats is to do so over a long-term basis,” Burger says.
Looking at social public crimes, there is a clear downward trend over the past five years. For example, the number of sexual offences reported were down from 62 reports in 2010 to 49 in 2015.
“What we have noticed is the crimes that have dropped are so-called social public crimes apart from murder. We have found an unexplained drop in these crimes. It is hard to go by these stats, they are not completely credible,” says Burger. He suggests the problem comes from people not reporting these crimes due to a lack of trust in the police by the community.
“It is more of a case of people increasingly not reporting the crimes, either because they have no confidence in the police and/or believe the police have no interest in solving the crimes,” says Burger.
As seen with shop owner Hisham, trust in the police is lacking in the community and this is further proven by resident and wife of Warrant Officer Mohamed, Sumaya Mohamed: “When the reservists are out we see a lot more drive to make changes, but the normal police have shown nothing that will give you confidence in them [the SAPS].”
“We as a neighbourhood watch have to actively encourage people to report their complaints. So the stats are credible, the statistics are nowhere near what happens in the neighbourhood,” says React member Mohammed Vally. React is an umbrella body, formed in the Brixton area, consisting of neighbourhood watches.
Vally suggests that the lack of trust in the police stems, in part, from the lack of resources available to the police. As a result the neighbourhood watches and CPFs need to intervene: “If we don’t intervene then nobody will.” As a result, Vally says, there is a shift in confidence from the police to these community policing bodies.
Vally says there is some racial tension in the area. “There is no love lost in certain segments of the community and because of that, we appear to be a splintered community.” He says this makes the community vulnerable to criminal activity.
Sumaya Mohamed believes the problem with Mayfair lies with foreigners.
“There are too many foreigners in the area. Mayfair was never like this, it has become a dumping zone. Mayfair needs to get cleaned up,” she says.
South-African born community members and the SAPS have different perceptions of crime in Mayfair. Over the past 20 years, Mayfair has become a landing spot for many foreigners who have started businesses, built families and become a community. People from all parts of the world have settled in Mayfair, people from Egypt, Ethiopia, Pakistan and Somalia. The common perception of South African community members is that foreigners are to blame for crime in the area.
But foreigners are not the only ones perceived to be driving crime in the area as South African criminals are drawn to Mayfair.
“Criminals find a safe haven here. The access to these neighbourhoods is quite easy. The ability for a criminal to escape to the area makes this an alluring place for them,” says the neighbourhood watch’s Vally.
CPF chairperson Majam believes rising crime in the area is linked to opportunist criminals while Warrant Officer Mohamed believes it has more to do with the hopelessness of those in the community. “It is about unemployment and desperation, people need to eat and they are struggling to feed themselves and their families,” says Mohamed.
Mohamed explains that there are many factors that play a role in crime in Mayfair, foreigners being the least of them. But the perception of crime in the area and the reality are two very different things that both parties might never agree on. This in fact may be the biggest problem with safety in the area.