This piece first appeared in The Mercury on 3 March 2014

On the surface of it, crime has no benefit to communities whatsoever. When areas go through what is commonly referred to as a crime spate all that seems to result is fear and trauma; there is surely nothing good about that.

Well yes and no. If communities respond smartly to crime – harness the fear if you like – very tangible benefits can result making the area a better place to live. Let me explain.

We have all witnessed scenes either first hand or in movies when – after a run of attacks on farms or homes in a particular area – residents get together in a local hall, vent their anger and discuss possible solutions.

United by a common bond of fear they join hands – perhaps for the first time – to safeguard their families and homes. Community is often the result of crime.

And I would go as far as to say that community is not only a potential upside of crime but that effective community is the opposite of crime; that where community works well crime rates will drop. That first meeting in a local hall is powerful simply because it is a first step towards community.

Of course the clever clogs out there will reason that if crime leads to community then South Africa should have the best communities this side of the Ho Chi Minh trail and that – by extension – we should have no crime at all. This is of course not the case because of what happens next:

When we get together in that hall for the first time two things happen: we kick off by recounting our crime horror stories. Then the soon-to-be-elected chairman of the soon-to-be-constituted board of trustees says we need to “fight back”/”wage war against the criminals” or words to that effect. This in itself suggests a battle in which there will be a winner – hopefully us – and a loser – hopefully the bad guys. It implies that the war will be quick, it will be easy – shock and awe style – and we will be free of crime within a matter of months. Everyone leaves feeling positive.

Because we think a ‘battle’ will win the day, we kick off our plans by employing soldiers. Our modern day soldiers are R4000 per month employees of security companies. Now I know from talking to dozens of these guys that they could not get work doing anything else and turned to security as an absolute last resort. Very few if any grew up with a dream to sit in a wooden hut all night long and possibly take a bullet for a rich family that does not even bother to find out their name.

So what happens is that the community gets excited about being safe and secure again and they pay money each month to fund a bunch of guards on the street; maybe a camera or two. This is usually the end of the good ideas because, well, what else is there other than security companies?

Then someone gets broken into. Why? Because the R4000 per month solider did not turn up for work or he was out patrolling at point B when a house near point A was hit. Then the community loses faith in the initiative and stops funding it and this is usually where the thing, sadly, derails.

Now guarding and cameras are part of the solution but they alone won’t solve an area’s crime problem. If all we do when crime brings us together is outsource our security to a security company then we have missed the big opportunity. A neighborhood’s employment of security guards and cameras is just a tangible, visible means by which to get everyone’s buy-in. Then the work of the community needs to begin.

And what does this work entail? Well if the opposite of crime is community, then security initiatives need to analyze what well-functioning, healthy communities look like and mirror that. Amongst other things, healthy, crime-free neighborhoods have:

– Neighbors who know each other and look out for one another
– Regular meetings to discuss community issues
– Good communication via a variety of digital media platforms
– Residents who work together and with local authorities to fix what is broken (lights, roads, drains, walls, signs)
– Residents who keep their area clean and tidy
– Residents who assist security companies and the police by being the eyes and ears on the street
– Residents who support their local police and report crime
– Residents who obey the law

If your area has a neighborhood security initiative, get involved and give of both your time and money. If not – consider starting one. They are integral to the creation of a safe, crime-free South Africa.

Justin Foxton is founder of The Peace Agency.

This column is dedicated to the memory of 17 year old Anene Booysens: gang raped, mutilated and murdered.