Upliftment is the way to bring down crime levels

On Tuesday the shuttle driver who was taking me to Cape Town International Airport told me, almost nonchalantly, that he’d lived in Marikana, Philippi, until last week but had fled the area and moved to Khayelitsha after the recent violence which saw at least 18 people killed over a 10-day period.

“At least I feel safer in Harare in Khayelitsha,” he said.

It was a strange statement, seeing that Harare was, not too long ago, deemed to be one of the most crime-ridden areas in Khayelitsha.

But for someone who lives in a violent environment - where you could get killed every day, either in random gang shootings, planned assassinations or other violent actions - safety is a relative term.

Marikana is what is euphemistically called an informal settlement, consisting mainly of corrugated iron shacks, while Harare is a mix of shacks and formal housing, with a few facilities such as a library, small shops and even a satellite police station.

Marikana started years ago when people began invading privately-owned land near the airport to build homes. It is estimated that more than 60 000 people now live on the land.

It is probably one of the most dangerous places to live and one will have to wait and see whether the remedial action announced with big fanfare by Minister of Police Fikile Mbalula this week - because he knows of no other way in which to make announcements - will have any effect.

The minister announced a change in leadership at the Philippi East Police Station and the introduction of 40 extra police officers in the area.

I welcome these moves but more needs to be done. The problem with beefing up the police and making the kind of changes which Mbalula has made, is that this could signal to criminals that they have the lawmakers and peacekeepers on the back foot. It is a short-term solution that does not address the structural problems in the area.

The police have announced the steps that they are taking to counter the criminals. The criminals have not announced their moves. They never do.

The best way to police areas such as Marikana, which is dense, over-populated and difficult to navigate because of a lack of roads and other infrastructure, is by winning over the community, which seems not to have happened in this case.

Too often, criminals get away with their activities because they have the protection of the community. Gangsters are often the sons and daughters of community members who will do everything in their power to “protect” their loved ones. Many community members live in hope children who are involved in gangs or other criminal activities will one day “see the light”.

I lived in many dangerous places on the Cape Flats as a youth, including at least two “squatter camps”, which is what we called “informal settlements” in the old days, and I remember how we depended on the support of community members when we walked to school or collected water from a tap on privately-owned land. We had to pay for every bucket of water we collected.

We also “made friends” with the local gangsters because if we did not do that, they would not allow us to walk through their areas and we would never be able to go to school.

We never went out at night and always slept with one eye open because a shack does not afford one much protection. Sometimes at night, one could hear the sounds of what appeared to be gang fights outside. In many ways, we were trapped in our shacks at night.

As I grew older and became involved in community organisation, I realised that this is often one of the best ways to deal with seemingly unstable communities. Community organisations which become true voices of the people they claim to represent can help with addressing a range of social issues, including crime and gangsterism.

Through community organisations, the affected people can feel they are playing a role in determining the future of their community and their children.

One hopes the mobilisation that resulted in more than 300 people storming the police station last week, demanding action against criminals - action which probably led to Mbalula’s visit and announcements this week - can be harnessed in a positive and a permanent manner.

It would be a pity if it was only a one-off protest. There should be a way of turning the anger against crime into a concern for the upgrading and upliftment of the community.

Crime never operates in isolation and is often the result of a range of other social ills, such as unemployment, poverty and a lack of housing. If dealt with properly and things do get turned around in Marikana, this could serve as an example of how to deal with crime and other societal issues in a grim situation. But that will require more than grand announcements and will need some real community engagement.

(First published as a Thinking Allowed column in the Weekend Argus on Saturday 7 October 2017)