Effective policing is difficult enough to deliver anywhere in the world but how do Yeoville police help the community if they don’t speak the same language? Bureaucracy, internal politics and conflicts of interest are additional hurdles the precinct must overcome.

Blood pouring from a gash on the side of his head, a man clothed in torn khaki pants holds a scrunched up t-shirt to his head in an attempt to staunch the bleeding. He is followed closely by a woman yelling agitatedly in a foreign language.

They are headed for the Yeoville police station. As bystanders enquire after his welfare, the pair seem unable to reply in English or any other South African language. Because of this, it will be difficult for the man to make himself “heard” sufficiently for a case to be opened.

Yeoville police say that many people reporting crimes in the area are foreign nationals, who cannot speak English or any local language. This makes it difficult for police to assist them with their complaints. Where both the victim and the perpetrator speak minimal English, it is particularly difficult for the police to discover exactly what has happened, and the issue between them.

The problem is we cannot understand them. How can we help them if they can’t talk to us and we can’t speak to them?

Yeoville is still in the process of change. Originally a white area, it became a predominantly black South African area after 1994.  Since then, it has morphed again. The 2011 census put the number of foreign nationals at 20% of the black population, while independent research by a coordinator of Yeoville.org in 2013 gives the percentage of foreigners as 35% of the total population, which has grown to 38 964. Yeoville.org is a website that carries information about the area, its history, present and possible futures. It is coordinated by Maurice Smithers,

Yeoville/Bellevue has become a Pan-African mix of cultures, languages and religions. This diversity has altered the image of Yeoville and also made it difficult for the South African Police Service (SAPS) to police the area effectively.

Bigger and better

The current Yeoville police station, which is operating out of a house leased by the SAPS, is too small to function as an independent station for such a populated area. According to SAPS station manager Colonel Lubisi Motaung, it used to be a satellite station, reporting to the Hillbrow precinct. As the population grew, it became a station in its own right.

SQUEEZE IN: The Yeoville station is operating from a small house although a new station has been built. There is not enough room for the policemen or their vehicles. Photo: Kudzai Mazvarirwofa

The reception area of the station is tiny and separated into three makeshift cubicles to give complainants a semblance of privacy. The small yard only has room to park four small police vehicles – the rest must be parked in the street. More makeshift office space has been created along the perimeter wall.

A bigger and better police station is just weeks away from completion around the corner from the present station. This new station, which SAPS communication officer Constable Thabo Malatji says cost over R15-million, has created hope for better policing services for the community. It will be big enough to accommodate all the staff and allow the station to function independently.

Complaints laid at the current police station mostly involve assaults, thefts, conflicts between residents and issues of miscommunication between residents.

“It is a problem dealing with criminal cases here in Yeoville,” says Motaung. “Half of the times the people involved are foreigners, who can’t communicate well. The problem is we cannot understand them. How can we help them if they can’t talk to us and we can’t speak to them?

COMMUNICATION BARRIER: Yeoville SAPS station manager, Colonel Lubisi Motaung, talks about the language barrier the police are facing policing in Yeoville. PHOTOKudzai Mazvarirwofa

“Yeoville has become a kind of first stop where people settle when they first come to Jo’burg.”

Malatji agrees. “It is difficult communicating with the people, especially if they are trying to report a crime and you cannot understand each other. But in most cases the person involved, if they cannot speak English, they bring a friend, but still we cannot determine how true their statements are.”

Since 2012, Yeoville police station has been trying to break down the language barrier by requesting translation assistance from an NGO called the African Diaspora Forum (ADF), based in Bellevue.

“There was a time when a woman came here to report a sensitive assault,” says Motaung. “Adding to that was the fact that she could not speak English and we had to call for help from the ADF. They assisted us by sending someone who could help us hear her problem.”

Jean-Pierre Lukamba, a refugee from the DRC and chairperson of the ADF, says most foreigners from the DRC and Gabon speak French as their first and, sometimes, only language.

“You find that people who come from maybe Congo and Gabon do not know and understand the laws and regulations in South Africa. On top of that, they can barely speak any local language so if something happens to them, they cannot speak for themselves.”

When there is a failure of communication, immigrants might also feel they are not being taken seriously.

What can be done?

The ADF has been pushing for an ADF “help desk” in the new police station. It will be staffed by the ADF, which is currently in talks with the Minister of Police Nathi Mthethwa to “meet halfway” on funding.

Lukamba says the NGO plans not only to help with communication, but to help migrants understand which channels to take in order to get help and to educate them about their rights and South African law.

“In most cases when migrants go to the police to report cases, they complain there is negligence from the police side. When we engage with the police they say it is not a case of negligence. Some cases that migrants bring to the police might be labour issues, which the police will direct them to the CCMA.”

BIGGER AND BETTER: The new station which has cost up to R15-million in funding is weeks away from completion. Photo: Kudzai Mazvarirwofa

The ADF intends to use the Yeoville station as a “pilot project”, since they have received similar complaints from migrants in Berea, Tembisa and other communities.

This office will work independently of the police and will operate on transparency. “The government, the media, the community and the embassy from which the migrant is from will be involved [when dealing with difficult issues concerning a migrant],” says Lukamba.

“Our intention is not to replace the police. Our intention is to assist or complement them so that they can better serve the community.”

LOCKED UP: One of the cells in construction at the new station. Photo: Kudzai Mazvarirwofa

However noble the principle, this will not be an easy feat. Colonel Noxolo Kweza, spokesperson for the Gauteng SAPS communications department, says she believes it will be difficult to implement.

“It will be difficult because then, as SAPS, what we do for one office we must also do for every other precinct in South Africa.”

Yeoville is not a “unique situation”, she says, and other precincts like Hillbrow/Berea and Sunnyside in Pretoria are tackling the same issue. She says the Yeoville police might sometimes need the ADF’s help, but “there are measures” within the SAPS that are put in place for situations such as the one in Yeoville.

“We work closely with the department of international relations and with the embassies just in case there is a need for a translator or help dealing with a migrant,” Kweza says.

Communication between the police and residents is not the only impediment to a secure society. The community itself experiences difficulties in understanding between its members. This can create credibility problems when police question the witnesses to crimes.

“It’s those bloody Zimbabweans that come here,” she says. “There are too many of them, the police can’t handle it.”

Shabbir Mohon, who comes from Bangladesh, owns a shop on Rockey Street where he was the victim of armed robbery. Mohon speaks very little English but managed to explain that he was robbed at gunpoint, and the perpetrators took his cellular phone, some of his merchandise and R900 in cash.

A South African street vendor, Virginia Capelo, claims she was sitting outside at the time of the robbery. She is positive the criminals were Zimbabweans. However she admits she cannot differentiate between Shona, spoken by Zimbabweans, and Igbo, a Nigerian dialect.

“It’s those bloody Zimbabweans that come here,” she says. “There are too many of them, the police can’t handle it.”

The judicial domino effect

The communication hurdle faced by police in Yeoville not only affects their ability to do their job but sets off a judicial “domino effect”, which could affect the eventual verdict.

“If an arrest is lawful then legally the police are allowed to arrest a person,” says criminal lawyer Marius du Toit. “However, the person has a right to have their rights read to them in a language they understand and the police are supposed to enquire that the person understands their rights because if they do not do this then their statement or any actions they do thereafter are inadmissible in court.

“If the criminal does not speak any of the official languages, then it is up to the police to make sure they find a translator who can help the criminal understand his rights. Otherwise, even if he gives evidence or a statement after, it does not hold up in court.”

Some members of the community believe the SAPS in Yeoville tries its best, but is hampered by lack of resources. The new station will cater to issues of space and management. It will put under one roof the public-service sector (those who cook and clean), the non-uniformed members (the detective and criminal operations department, which is currently operating from another building) and the uniformed police.

“The current building we are in is too small and it does not belong to the police – we are leasing it,” says Malatji.

Yeoville policemen talk about their challenges in the suburb. By: Kudzai Mazvarirwofa

“Besides bringing all operations together, the new station will help with reporting,” says Motaung. “If someone comes to report a sensitive crime in this station, it is difficult because there is no privacy. The person might end up not telling us the whole truth.”

Another problem is that the current police station has no cells on the premises. “If we make any arrests now, we have to take the criminals to the Hillbrow station because there are no cells here.”

Malatji adds:  “Because there is not enough space here, it is difficult to function properly as a unit because the detective and criminal operations department is about 2km away so that is not user-friendly.”

The Yeoville police hope service delivery will improve when the new police station is complete, and have equally high hopes of their engagement with the ADF, says Malatji – despite the pessimism of Kweza, who is based at the provincial office in Parktown.

“Their [ADF] assistance has already done a great deal to help us because now we have got a fair understanding of the different nationalities residing within our country.”

The need for aid is vital in an area like Yeoville, and in South Africa in general, since the number of migrants make up a significant number of the population. Every person has to be protected by the policing system – regardless of their legal status or nationality.

If an effective way is not found to deal with a Pan-African society like Yeoville, a percentage of the community will always be left neglected.

FEATURED IMAGE: The Yeoville station is operating from a small house although a new station has been built. There is not enough room for the policemen or their vehicles. Photo: Kudzai Mazvarirwofa