5 years later: Informal communities remain under policed

Cape Town 18-10-2010 Residents lives in fear as the gangs shoots on the people in an all-out drug war in Hanover Park. Story Tarryn Solomons. Pix jack Lestrade.

South Africa is one of the most violent countries in the world. That violence, however, is not experienced at the same rate across the country. Year in and year out South Africa’s crime statistics reveal that poor, working class, urban and semi-urban, and predominantly Black police precincts carry the greatest burden of violent crime.

The wave of murders that have plagued Khayelitsha these last two weeks alone are testament to this. These precincts inevitably cover informal settlements. Despite this reality, despite the outsized need for effective policing in these areas, the South African Police Service (SAPS) has no guidelines for visible policing in informal settlements.

The strategic deployment of police within communities, and the visibility of police in the spaces where and when crime is known to occur, can have a profound effect on not only reducing the brazenness of criminality but also on how communities see the police. In short, police need to be where crime happens to act not only as a deterrent but also to make residents feel safer.

This is self-evident and yet many people living in South Africa, especially those living in some of the most violent spaces in South Africa, feel they hardly ever see or are able to engage with the police. Why is it the case that in historically demarcated, still predominantly, white areas police patrols are visible while in historically demarcated Coloured and Black areas they aren’t?

During the Khayelitsha Commission of Inquiry into Policing the commissioners, Justice Kate O’Regan and Advocate Vuzi Pikoli, listened to a number of concerns by community members as well as police officers. Community members would give accounts of how they felt abandoned by the police service, didn’t see police in their area and felt that acts of violence and other injustices were either overlooked or handled poorly.

One mother gave an account of how after her daughter was killed the police failed to meet and communicate with her. Too often in testimony before the Commission, residents stated that they felt that the police did not see them and failed to appreciate the difficulties they faced in trying to make their homes and communities safer and more secure.

Despite initially being hesitant of engaging in the Commission police officers eventually found their voices and raised some of the challenges they faced and grievances they’ve had. Many talked about the difficulties of working in poorly-resourced precincts with high rates of reported crimes and murders. They talked about the systemic difficulties around policing that was above and beyond what was included in their training. One of those systemic difficulties was around the built environment.

In South Africa visible policing is most often associated with and understood to be the patrolling of neighbourhoods by two officers in a police van that pointedly has “Visible Policing” emblazoned on it. Visible policing as a result is heavily reliant on areas being organised and formal. This approach to visible policing has meant that many police officers are ill-equipped to undertake general visible policing, let alone pointed and strategic patrols, in informal settlements.

There are a number of differences in the built environment of informal areas that make policing difficult. Firstly, there are no clearly demarcated roads between homes making it impossible to rely on “Visible Policing” vans for visible policing. Secondly, the areas are informal, which means there is no planned layout that can be navigated intuitively whether by police van (if possible), by foot, by horse, by quad-bike etc. Thirdly, the terrain is uneven, the alleys between homes are narrow, the building materials used sometimes leave jagged edges and electric wires often criss-cross the space. Add to this the lack of effective public lighting and the extent of the challenges presented by informality become clear.

Even though the lack of visible policing in certain communities can be squarely blamed on the national police service and local law enforcement, other governmental departments are also failing these communities, and the police, by not delivering services. The lack of built environment interventions in areas of high density and high informality have a direct impact on the safety and security of residents. This lack of built environment interventions then compounds the lack of safety and security because it makes policing even more challenging.

So, while one can appreciate the difficulties that the police service face in working in informal areas, and why we support calls for greater service delivery in informal settlements, the requirement still falls on the SAPS to develop ways of ensuring visible policing in informal settlements that is comparable to what residents in formal suburbs experience.

Every level of government and every department within government are constitutionally required to ensure the safety and security of people in South Africa. Whether they are at school, travelling to work on public transport, whether they are accessing health care services, shared communal sanitation facilities or find themselves in a public space the state and state organs have a responsibility to keep people safe and secure.

During the hearings of the Khayelitsha Commission, one station commander admitted that policing in informal settlements is largely neglected. As a result the Commission recommended that the Provincial Commissioner publish guidelines that aim to guide and regulate visible policing patrols in informal neighbourhoods. The Commission wanted the guidelines to identify the manner in which visible policing in informal settlements should take place and ensure that they are undertaken routinely and frequently.

In addition, the recommendation wanted the guidelines to cover the ways in which SAPS should work collaboratively with Neighbourhood Watches in both formal and informal areas. According to the Commission these guidelines were to be published within six months of the date that the Commission’s report was finalised.

This year marks the 5 year anniversary of the release of the Commission’s report. To date many residents in Khayelitsha and the residents of informal settlements across the country, which make up about 13% of the country’s 16.9 million households, along with the police officers working in these settlements, are still waiting on senior SAPS management to develop and issue the necessary guidelines to ensure safety for all.

According to the Estimates of National Expenditure, Visible Policing accounts for the biggest share of the police service’s budget at an estimated R49.9 billion for 2019/2020. Given this level of investment, the responsibility to ensure that positive outcomes are achieved and communities are made safer, guidelines for visible policing in informal settlements must be developed.

Strategic deployment of police resources that create greater police visibility is important because it reduces the likelihood of hubs of criminal activity developing. Additionally (and often more importantly) visible policing is imperative in building a relationship of trust between community members and the police service.

In doing so individuals are more likely to come forward to report a crime and more likely to build collectively towards a safer and more just society. With Bheki Cele re-appointed as Minister of Police one hopes that he will work with Provincial Commissioners to prioritize patrolling within informal settlements and in doing so prioritize the lives of those who work and live in these communities.

Khadija Bawa is working as a researcher at the Social Justice Coalition in Khayelitsha located in Cape Town, South Africa.