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.
This blog first appeared in The Mercury on Monday 31st March 2014
Six years ago almost to the day, I was out on a dusty farm road in my other favorite province – Mpumalanga – training for the Comrades Marathon. As is my custom, I acknowledged people as I ran passed them; looking them in the eyes, smiling and saying hello. These were poor folk; farm laborers shuffling home from work; women carrying great buckets of water; old men with heavy loads of firewood on their shoulders. They all looked exhausted; worn down by the grind of life.
And from amongst these brief interactions emerged one that would completely change my life and the way I view how we ‘do country’ here in South Africa.
I looked into the eyes of an old black man who was trudging home carrying wood and greeted him. He stopped dead in front of me, his eyes darting this way and that; confused; quizzical. I too stopped not knowing what might come next. He looked at me for a few seconds and then his tired, crevassed old face softened and broke out into the warmest smile I believe I have ever seen.
In that moment I had what some might call a Damascus Road experience. I realized that the violence and hatred that seeps out of the very pores of this nation does so because – for hundreds of years – we have simply not seen one another; we have not looked into one another’s eyes; we have not taken the time to greet one another; we have withheld respect and dignity; we have ignored one another; we have turned a blind eye to suffering and pain, poverty and injustice; we have called one another hateful names; we have laughed at each other’s expense; we have elevated ourselves above one another.
As I have spoken and written on this theory of mine, many have testified that – in practical terms alone – simple acts of respect and dignity have yielded profound results; one Midlands woman saved herself and her family from certain death at the hands of a gang of violent robbers simply by showing them kindness and respect; a Johannesburg woman spoke a man and his cohorts out of raping her.
These and many other examples have poured in from actual crime scenes. However what interests me more is this: what can we citizens do to create an environment of peace and tolerance; an environment in which rates of crime and violence drop organically? What can we do to alter the atmosphere of violence and discord that we currently live in?
Back to my Damascus Road experience, I believe it is easier than we make it: an atmosphere of discord is altered by sowing harmony; an atmosphere of violence is altered by sowing peace; an atmosphere of disorder is altered by sowing order; an atmosphere of lawlessness is altered by sowing lawfulness. It really is as simple as that.
Think of it in farming terms; for decades, even centuries we have sowed intolerance, hatred, division and inequality. Now we are reaping the fruits of that which include violence, crime and corruption.
And this is why my experience on that farm road gave me such hope; it reminded me that whilst the human heart takes years of abuse to become hardened and calloused – perhaps even violent – it can become tender again in a single moment of acknowledgement or through a simple act of respect.
Once I had experienced connectedness with that old man – a connectedness that transcended language, age and race – I wanted to experience it with others. I went out of my way to converse with people on the street; car guards; tellers; packers; laborers; students – anyone I could. I began to experience the power inherent in active reconciliation and I loved it. I loved it so much I began a campaign called Stop Crime Say Hello which encourages all of us to reach out across the gaping chasms that separate us.
And as people began to experience the power of connection a fascinating thing began to happen; they wanted to do more to help create a safe, healed and thriving nation. One woman summed it up beautifully when she blurted out; “Justin, I greet everyone I can but I want to do more – what else can I do?”
The influential African American author, theologian, educator and civil rights leader Howard Thurman provided a fascinating answer to this when he said: “Don’t ask what the world needs. Ask what makes you come alive and go out and do it. Because what the world needs is people who have come alive.”
Justin Foxton is founder of The Peace Agency.
This column is dedicated to the memory of 17 year old Anene Booysen: gang raped, mutilated and murdered.