Police in Makhanda have urged the public to support legal crime fighting initiatives such as street patrols, neighbourhood watch or community police forums. This comes as residents frustrated with increasing crime in their neighbourhoods continue to exercise mob justice. Sue Maclennan reports
An elderly couple were among half a dozen residents who were taken to hospital to have injuries treated after police used rubber bullets to disperse an angry crowd in Vukani recently. They say they were caught in the crossfire between police and a group of residents who, sick of daily theft in the area, have decided to act against the alleged culprits.
“We saw the police passing,” Ellen Maki, 74, told Grocott’s Mail. “We were sitting outside our gate. The police called the community and we went and joined them. The police spoke with the community. They didn’t finish speaking when they started to fight with the community shooting rubber bullets.”
“We were on our way back to the house when they shot us,” said Welile Makopeni, 76. The couple were taken in a private vehicle to Settlers Hospital where, along with half a dozen others, wounds from the rubbers bullets were attended to.
Makopeni said the doctor had removed two rubber bullets from his leg.
‘I didn’t take that tape’
It all started when a young man was asked to wash the vehicle of a Vukani resident.
Back at home three days after the incidents that led to the couple’s injuries, the 20-year-old spoke to Grocott’s Mail.
He dropped out of school two years ago and since then has remained at home – “watching TV, visiting friends”.
“On Saturday I went to wash [a man’s]car,” he said. “The next day, [the man’s wife]came with three men and said, ‘Let’s go.’”
They demanded to know where the car radio was.
“The lady started beating me and then the three boys, and then all the people came,” he said. “They made me walk to Hlalani with them – looking for their stuff – then to B Street. They beat me and two others.”
Others joined in.
“The police vans came and took us to hospital.”
The young man opened an assault case.
“I didn’t take that tape,” he said.
‘When we call them they don’t show up’
Determined to make sure their side of the story was heard, a group of residents gathered nearby and summoned Grocott’s Mail.
“Two guys came to wash the car. They had the keys. When I looked the next day, there was no car radio, yet nothing had been broken into,” said a woman.
“The community took this in hand,” said a member of the group. “We asked them where the stuff was – we took them to Xolani, Hlalani, K Street, B Street. When they misled us, the crowd became emotional.”
“We asked the parents what must we do,” said another woman. “They said, ‘Take them – we are sick and tired of them’,”.
They feel it was unfair that the police acted against them.
“We can call the police and nothing happens – they say they are scared of Covid, or the roads are too bad,” said a group member. “But when we take action, they come.
“What must we do when we call them and they don’t show up? They patrolled during Level 5, but since level 3 crime has gone up a lot.
“Police must be more visible.
“The best solution is for the police to arrest them. But three days later when they’re out, they just repeat it.”
Michael Nikelo is a member of a group that has decided to work in partnership with the police to help curb crime in the community. Grocott’s Mail spoke to the group outside the Grahamstown Police Station, where they’d met with senior police to discuss the establishment of formal, controlled community patrols.
They’re also frustrated.
“The police do arrest the tsotsis but the court releases them, no matter what they’ve done, and we see them after a few days,” Nikelo said.
“There has been too much crime during the lockdown – more than 100 people a day come to this police station to report a crime – theft from houses, cars. In Vukani there is something that happens every day.
“It’s because people aren’t working,” Nikelo said. “Also they’re taking drugs. Some of them are violent.
“We do think proper patrols can help solve this problem.”
Drugs and peer pressure
The police have urged communities to build such partnerships rather than take the law into their own hands.
Like all other South African towns and policing precincts, Makhanda had been negatively affected by crime under the Covid-19 lockdown, said South African Police Service spokesperson Captain Khaya Tonjeni.
The closing of offices at times following Covid-19 cases among staff had forced contingency plans for service delivery.
“In addition, cases were stalled, as the courts have not been able to continue with their business,” Tonjeni said.
The policing of lockdown regulations had occupied significant police resources, Tonjeni said.
“We have been deploying our members to assist with the enforcement of lockdown regulations and using such opportunities to create awareness about crime. “
Grocott’s Mail had asked whether there was a connection between the long school break and an increase in crime under lockdown.
“We cannot speculate about the connection between the non-schooling and rise in rampant crime but we know that if there is a drug dealer in a particular community, his or her intentions is to make a quick profit and erode the social as well as moral fibre of that particular community,” Tonjeni said.
The biggest victims were the youth, who were susceptible to peer pressure.
“This results in them being drug users and sometimes criminals.
“We therefore call on the community members to anonymously report drug peddlers in our midst and we will do our best to act and keep whistleblowers’ identity a secret,” said Tonjeni.
Use partnerships to strengthen crime-fighting
“We understand the public frustration and disappointment in the quality of police service.
“At the same time, we want to plead with the public not to lose confidence in the police. The police are the only ones with the mandate and resources to fight crime.
“Instead of fighting the police or taking law into own hands, let us rally our support to strengthening the efforts of the police and utilise our strength, time and resources supporting legal crime fighting initiatives like street patrols, neighbourhood watches or community police forums.
“Through these partnerships we will be able to break the backbone of crime and restore respect for law in our immediate environments.”
Meanwhile, Mali and Makopeni find it hard to forget the shock of being caught in the crossfire. “We were so scared that day,” said Makopeni.