The volunteer crime fighters using whistles and whips

Concerns about violent crime will be on the minds of South Africans as they go to the polls later this month, with politicians making all sorts of promises about dealing with it.

With murder rates at a 20-year high, BBC Africa Eye had exclusive access to the frontline communities who are fighting back.

A shriek of whistles fills the air as people in yellow and orange hi-vis vests start running.

“Oh God,” someone shouts as a policeman lies slumped on the ground. He has been shot.

It is Friday night in Diepsloot, a township on the outskirts of Johannesburg – South Africa’s commercial hub.

“This is a regular occurrence,” says Abel Rapelego. The 41-year-old leads a team of volunteers who patrol the streets each night after dark.

The sirens from a police car disperse the mounting crowds.

“Patrollers, out of the way!” Mr Rapelego shouts to his team. “Let us give the law enforcement their time to do their job.”

The police officer, 38-year-old Tom Mashele, was taken to hospital but died a few weeks later. No-one has been arrested over his killing, which happened when he was off-duty.

The volunteer patrollers at work
The volunteers will stop people and question anyone they think is suspicious

South Africa has one of the highest murder rates in the world, according to the latest figures from the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime. There were more than 27,000 murders last year; that amounts to 45 people per 100,000. For comparison, the US rate is six per 100,000.

In the face of this, Mr Rapelego says the only way to keep their families safe is for volunteers to patrol the communities themselves, even if it means risking their own lives as “Diepsloot is in the hands of the criminals”.

The team of volunteers works closely with the municipal police.

It is an unofficial arrangement, as some of what they do is not legally sanctioned. No-one is paid and they do not carry guns. But they do have a sjambok, a traditional leather whip.

“We’re doing stop and search and if you are a criminal and you are not going to comply with us, the sjambok will apply also to you,” says Mr Rapelego.

The volunteers do not have the legal authority to carry out stop-and-search operations, nevertheless the team goes street by street questioning anyone who is out late.

As they walk past a shop, the owner says he has just been mugged. The volunteers manage to grab hold of a man seen running away and search him for the missing phones and money.

They whip him with the sjambok, which in itself is seen as a crime. There is no evidence he has done anything wrong, so they let him go.

When challenged on what right they have to do this, Mr Rapelego defends the use of force, saying: “Remember, Diepsloot is our place and if we don’t fix our Diepsloot, no-one will fix this Diepsloot.”

South Africa’s crime statistics show murder victims are overwhelmingly young black men, and the volunteers also place themselves at risk.

Two years ago, 21-year-old Alpha Rikhotso was shot and killed while out on patrol.

“I’m trying to accept the situation but it’s still painful,” says his father, David Rikhotso.

“He was trying to protect his life, my life and everyone. He was fighting against crime.”

Someone showing a picture on a phone
David Rikhotso shows a picture of his son, Alpha, who was shot dead two years ago

His son was the first one on the scene when the volunteers blew their whistles to alert the group about criminal activity. He managed to catch the man, but was shot in the arm.

He did not survive the injury. Just like with the policeman, no-one was ever arrested for the killing.

“Every day people are getting robbed. People are dying every day. I pray day and night that they [the patrollers] can be safe. There is no law in this place,” Mr Rikhotso tells BBC Africa Eye.

The damage the level of violent crime causes to the economy is huge.

The World Bank estimates the cost of South Africa’s violent crime is almost $40bn (£32bn) – at least 10% of its GDP every year.

And the problem cuts across racial lines, which remain clearly defined despite the end of the system of legalised racism, known as apartheid, three decades ago.

Sixty kilometres (37 miles) north-west of Diepsloot, another volunteer patrol group sets off in Brits, a town in North West province.

This one is organised by farmers from a group called Afriforum. They say they represent the interests of mainly white Afrikaners and have more than 300,000 members nationwide.

With pick-up trucks, quad bikes and drones they search farms and abandoned buildings through the night. They say they are looking for stolen goods, stashed to be picked up later, or anyone out late who looks suspicious.

Many of them, like volunteer Dewald van Wyngaardt, are armed.

“You can’t go to a gunfight with a knife. I won’t hesitate to protect my family. That’s it. If I must come into a scuffle with another guy and he will hurt me, I won’t stand back for him,” he says.

Source: BBC

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Related Articles

Back to top button

Adblocker Detected

Turn Off your Adblocker to continue.