Johannesburg is famous for its fortunes and notorious for its crime. With millions in the city chasing a dream – are they adequately being kept safe?

FORTRESS JOBURG – High-raised walls with spikes and electric fencing, with surveillance from CCTV or unarmed private security guards like Cameron Fayindlala of 24/7 security – Johannesburg residents spend large amounts of money to guard themselves and their property. Photo: Seth Thorne

When the sun sets over the economic hub of South Africa, Johannesburg – do you feel safe? “No, I don’t – crime in Joburg [is] way too high,” said Rogers Risenga, a resident of Alexandra – one of the city’s hotspots for serious crimes. 

He is not alone – nearly eight in ten of the 6,2 million residents are estimated to be living with constant feelings of unsafety in the city, and who can blame them? Joburg consistently tops the list where the most serious crimes are reported in Gauteng province. Hearing of or falling victim to armed robberies, home break-ins, assaults, murders, and carjackings in the city is almost a daily occurrence. 

Crimes are not distributed evenly, with handfuls of areas across Joburg recording crime rates well above the city (and national) average. 

Regardless, instances of crime are prevalent citywide. The City of Johannesburg (COJ) plays a crucial role in developing and implementing localised solutions to crime. They outline that crime and a lack of safety are some of the biggest challenges faced by residents. In response, a City Safety Strategy was created, but last revised in 2016/17. It outlines that the responsibility of creating a safe city does not sit solely on the shoulders of local government – but involves the whole of society.  

A “multi-agency collaboration” approach has been adopted, but are they currently effective if a large majority of the residents feel so unsafe? By identifying and contextualising (some of) these different sectors, the question is asked – is everyone pulling their weight? Why? What (are just some) of the solutions if not? 

Examples of crime statistics where Johannesburg consistently tops national average. Photo: Seth Thorne

The national structure tasked with protecting civilians and combating crime is the South African Police Service (SAPS) – with 44 stations located in the city.  SAPS has a feigning perception for a number of reasons, including but not limited to perceptions of corruption and underperformance from detective units. 

This is not to discredit pockets of commendable policing work. Statistically, SAPS are short-staffed (over 80 thousand under their ideal target), poorly resourced (26% of police vehicles are not operational) and underperforming investigative capacities. “It usually takes [SAPS] three or four hours (at least) to arrive on the scene of a crime after we have contacted them,” said community policing volunteer Deidre De Carvalho.

“When cases are actually opened, they are [often] not investigated properly” – or at all, explained Lizette Lancaster, project manager at the Institute for Security Studies. A sentiment echoed by interviewees across the security sector. 

SAPS were consistently contacted for comment; however, communication went cold.

At a local level, the COJ has a plan to “reduce crime by 50% in the 40 worst crime hotspots”. This will largely fall under the mandate of the department of public safety.

Interactive map highlighting Johannesburg policing precincts that record some of the highest national serious crime statistics. Map: Seth Thorne

Joburg is one of six municipalities to have their own police service – the Johannesburg Metropolitan Police Department (JMPD), established due to “high levels of crime and grime” and a “lack of confidence in policing” according to their homepage.  

They “largely respond to high levels of serious crimes, like robbery and assault,” said JMPD superintendent Xolani Fihla. “We work in support of the national police – we do not have things like stations to hold suspects or crime intelligencem” he added.

Thousands of trained and armed JMPD officers are deployed by local government across the most populated municipality in South Africa to combat crime, enforce the city’s by-laws, and police traffic in the city. Photo: Seth Thorne.

Brewing in the department of public safety’s pot is the establishment of two new crime prevention and combatting units designed for serious crimes in the city. These are the JMPD armed tactical reaction unit, as well as a regional crime combatting and prevention unit. On November 10, 2023, these were officially launched by the MMC for public safety, Dr Mgcini Tshwaku, as part of the city’s #FightingCrimeManjeNamhlanje project. 

“We are going to use all means necessary to find these criminals” said Tshwaku in an interview with Newsroom Afrika. “We want to send a message with these units, that [we] will not be negotiating with criminals,” he added.

Apart from SAPS, JMPD partners with other security sectors like private security, crime prevention wardens, patrollers, and community policing. “Everyone needs to move together… more boots on the ground to help tackle crime,” said Fihla. In interviews with other stakeholders, they commended the responsiveness of JMPD when needed.

Additionally, in mayor Kabelo Gwamanda’s 2023 State of the Council Address, he said that the city plans on increasing the CCTV monitoring sector through partnerships with the private sector and through their own Integrated Intelligence Operations Centre (IIOC). Fihla explained that the JMPD undercover unit works closely with the IIOC, who inform them of crimes or by-law enforcement incidents that had been picked up in the control room.

Gwamanda also plans to recruit approximately 2 000 crime wardens to (as provincial police commissioner Elias Mawela describes them) “serve as the eyes and ears” of the police and JMPD.

Crime wardens have been a pervasive feature of recent provincial politics. There have been thousands of three-month trained wardens deployed as part of a R1.5 billion program announced by Gauteng premier Panyaza Lesufi earlier this year. 

The wardens make use of (sometimes armed) patrols, stop and searches and expensive equipment like drones, CCTV cameras, helicopters and fast cars. In his presentation of Gauteng’s most recent crime statistics, Mawela said that he believes it is too early to judge crime wardens’ performance.

Currently, it is facing questions about the legality of its formation, as well as accusations about these wardens having a heavy-handed approach to tackling crime – brutalizing suspects in the process. This stems from the possibility of poor crime prevention training and a lack of a vetting process in appointments.

Ultimately, all sectors are heavily reliant on the work of SAPS to see out the wheels of justice. It is only SAPS that can legally detain suspects, investigate, and open dockets of cases. 

“I appeal to the leadership of SAPS [to work together with the COJ], [because] people are really in trouble and crying out about crime. The only thing that JMPD can do is to arrest, but in terms of detention, investigation, and writing of dockets, that is still the function of the SAPS. So, we must forge a relationship,”  said Dr Tshwaku in his interview with Newsroom Afrika.

Noteworthy statistics of three major safety and security sectors – SAPS, JMPD and the private security – operating within Johannesburg. Infographics: Seth Thorne

A walk or drive around suburban Joburg shows the heavy investments by residents to protect themselves. From armed guards, and CCTV cameras, to high-raised walls with electric fencing. 

“Classical policing functions are today being accomplished through private security rather than the police service,“ said Doraval Govender and Professor Krisandren Pillay in their critical evaluation of policing.

However, the cost of safety in this industry is open to the highest bidder.  It is a service that prevents, picks up on, and responds to crimes committed against their clients. “Private security is expensive…People pay because they know we will be there when they call,” said Francois Marais, CEO of Randburg-based private security company Ghost Squad.

“With private security being a luxury only wealthy citizens can afford, there is a concern that this industry [could] widen the inequality gap – namely leaving those most directly affected by crime most vulnerable” said Professor Pillay, in his inaugural lecture on private security. 

They work very closely with communities, sometimes at the expense of innocent individuals on the other side of the fence that residents did not like the look of and shared such on their community WhatsApp group. 

Being well-resourced, private security are often first respondents to scenes.

There are also legal limitations in their duties, relying on the police force to respond efficiently if a crime is suspected to have or has been committed. But, after interviews with multiple security providers, this has (largely) not been the case.

“A couple of my employees (security guards) were held hostage by criminals. To this day police have not even taken statements,” said Eben Hulley, head of E&B Guarding, a private security company that operates in Johannesburg south.

Crime most affects communities themselves, and thus the public is critical in combatting it. They are better informed about what is happening around them and more willing to protect their areas. 

“We want to use the broken window theory – getting rid of visible crime will discourage more crime from being committed,” said Community Policing Forum (CPF) member, Deidre De Carvalho.

CPFs were set up to build a working relationship between the national police and communities. Volunteers, like De Carvalho joined “to take ownership and start protecting [their] community”.  

They work with other residents, private security, patrollers/guards who are registered with CPFs, and governmental security agencies. They perform patrols and consistent communication with the mentioned partners to locate, prevent and intervene in crime – working with the police station of their area. These are similar to the functions of neighbourhood watch groups.

When it comes the working relationships, “It depends on how good the SAPS station commander is, as some are extremely keen on working with other sectors like private security – but others refuse… luckily our station commander is good with that,” said De Carvalho.

Like all other sectors, these groups face legal limitations in how they can respond to crime and their effectiveness lies in the responsiveness of other security sectors. They rely on governmental security services to respond when a crime has been identified. “CPFs and security companies are guaranteed to get there before SAPS,” said De Carvalho. “We have to cordon areas off for hours until SAPS arrives.” 

Areas that largely cannot afford private security, with less prominent CPFs and underperformance of other security sectors sees a rise of, as Lancaster describes, “self-help groups” of people carrying weapons to feel safer and protect their areas. 

However, these sometimes morph into vigilante or criminal extortion groups of their own – charging/extorting protection money from the community. These arise because “police are seen as absent and cannot be trusted” by residents said Lancaster.

Research shows that if the public trusts the police and feels that they are fair, people are more likely to comply, report crimes and share crucial information that would be of use for police investigations and tip-offs. However, there is a trust deficit between the public and the national police force. 

Safety policies at the national level coincide greatly with local and provincial public policies. These have included increased budgetary spending, more boots on the ground and aggressive policing approaches. Aggressive policing strategies can strain the trust between government law enforcement and communities.

Governmental agencies have been documented brutalising communities because of these aggressive policing policies stemming from political focuses. “Doing a raid on informal traders is not going to stop crime because you are taking food out the mouths of their families” explained Lancaster. 

“If [these policies] are done correctly, people may feel safe… but they are often done badly leading people to mistrust law enforcement”. 

lizette lancaster

Every single possession belonging to these families covers this street in the Johannesburg CBD as police conduct a raid of an alleged hijacked building – a prevalent issue on the agenda of Johannesburg police. Photo: Seth Thorne

Numerous organisations play important roles in safety through research, data collection and analysis for the public. One such research organisation is the Institute for Security Studies (ISS), which assists the COJ in the formation of its safety strategy. 

An important part of tackling crime is understanding where and when crimes occur to create targeted policing. However, as Lancaster describes, the politicization of crime statistics has made it difficult to collect accurate data to pinpoint and combat crime.

The trust deficit can be seen in fewer victims of crime reporting them to police. Johannesburg proudly boasts a 62% decrease in recorded sexual assault crimes since 2005/6. However, this rather represents a declining confidence in reporting such cases to the police or a lack of responsiveness – not in the crime itself.

“Politicians… and worse yet the police are scared that they will be judged and punished – which leads to terribly perverse incentives. Especially sexual violence, people are not reporting it because (apart from stigmatisation) police actively dissuade [victims] because they are scared that they are going to be criticised and disciplined for [recording high crime statistics in their precinct],” explained Lancaster. 

As shown, numerous agencies work hard to counter crime. As more boots are put on the ground in other sectors, legally, all rely on the national police force to respond timeously and effectively for justice to run its course in both accusations and actual crimes. However, constraints and underperformance at SAPS illustrated by the responses indicate that this is often not the case.

David Bruce, a South African criminology expert, calls for police to implement less nationally focused policing strategies. Delegating some policing powers to provincial and municipal police departments could greatly help curb crime because there are “major variations in how violence is distributed across the city”. 

Additionally, there needs to be an improvement in the overall responsiveness of SAPS to scenes, as well as the effectiveness of their investigations.

Curbing crime involves the whole of society and policies should reflect that. To involve society, the working relationship, as well as the trust deficit between police, communities, and other actors, need to be improved to allow for more accurate data to be recorded, and better police intelligence. 

Overall – there are many actors and partnerships that are crucial to curbing crime – all with their pros and cons.  An incohesive working relationship between them both impacts crime and hinders justice. This mostly affects the everyday residents, like Rogers Risenga, who live in worry about the high levels of crime in the city. Working together can change that.