Women-Led Community Policing Forums Are Reviving Hope In South African Cities

Violent crime is on the rise in South Africa, but few trust the police force’s ability to take on the problem. Enter community policing forums.

Members of Community Policing Forums around South Africa. (Photos by Colleta Dewa)

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Days have turned into weeks, weeks into months, and months into years, but the events of June 5, 2019 remain fresh in Nosipo Msipa’s mind.

That was the day Msipa’s 5-year-old daughter was abducted while playing in the park, just a few meters away from their home. The girl was later found dead, body mutilated.

“The worst nightmare was the reception I received when I went to the police station to report that my daughter was missing,” recalls Msipa, a resident of Cape Town, South Africa. “I was told to come back after 48 hours. Out of sympathy and lack of faith in the police force, members of the community launched a search operation, only to find the remains of my little girl dumped in the nearby bush.”

Msipa’s case is one of the many cases of violent crimes happening in South Africa, a country that has allowed femicide to flourish with little to no effective solutions from authorities. But the growth of women’s participation and leadership in Community Policing Forums, or CPFs, has offered a ray of hope to Cape Town residents.

Msipa is a founding member of Cape Town’s Sisonke CPF. The group is made up of 15 members, 11 of which are women. “Being a victim of harsh crime pushed me to partake in community security activities,” Msipa says. “Most women in our organization have directly or indirectly come face to face with the harsh reality of crime in Cape Town.”

South Africa’s femicide rate is nearly five times that of the global figure, with a woman killed every four hours. According to UNICEF, at least three to four children are killed everyday in the nation; Statistics South Africa reports that one in five women experience physical violence by a partner.

“The rate at which women and children are abused, violated and some killed in South Africa remains worrying and unacceptable,” South Africa’s Police Minister Bheki Cele tells Next City. The country also has one of the highest rape statistics in the world. Annual police crime statistics confirm that about 115 rapes occur everyday.

“The justice system and law enforcement agencies have failed women and children in South Africa,” Msipa says. The conviction rate for violent crimes against women is only 3%, while DNA analysis for violent crimes has a backlog of 240,000 cases.

As a result, many South Africans have little trust in the police force and its ability to respond to this crisis. Data from the South African Social Attitudes Survey shows that public confidence in police from 1998 to 2021 has remained low: “Not once during this 23-year interval did more than half the adult public say that they trusted the police,” researchers with the Human Sciences Research Council note.

Womens’ participation in CPFs has been commended as a major step towards empowering themselves against violence. Out of the 13 Capetown-based CPFs which which Next City spoke, seven have approximately equal membership between men and women. These include Sea Point CPF, Simons Town CPF, Wynberg’s Community Policing Forum CPF, Fish Hoek CPF as well as the Chinese CPF among others.

Minister of Community Safety, Albert Fritz, has described them as “unsung heroines.”

What are Community Policing Forums?

The 1995 South African Police Service Act laid the foundation for the establishment of CPFs at each police station in South Africa to ensure that the provision of the policing service to the people is participatory, people-oriented and democratic.

Although such forums have been in place since the end of Apartheid rule, the drive to have functioning and effective CPFs has built momentum as the rate of violent crimes overwhelm the South African Police Service (SAPS).

CPFs aim to bridge the gap between the public and the police to solve problems and challenges of crime. Msipa’s CPF responds to hijackings, house robberies, homicides and petty crimes – theft of copper pipes or clothes from washing lines – on a near-daily basis. In addition to youth empowerment programs and awareness campaigns on gender-based violence and substance abuse, Sisonke CPFs has introduced local street patrols.

“It entails all residents to voluntarily join the patrols and monitor their streets for crime,” Msipa explains. “If we come across a crime during patrols, we call police. With technology we now have WhatsApp crime groups to help with fast information dissemination.”

The community police forums, which have been revived into full force in almost every South African town, are part of a broader expansion and diversification of community involvement in local safety, from traditional justice systems to vigilante actions and formal anti-crime initiatives, such as community patrols.

Traditionally, these CPFs were dominated by men, says Advocate Albert Anderson, a senior researcher at the Institute for Security Studies. The recent surge in femicide has witnessed a rise in women partaking in these groups.

“CPFs provide a bridge between the police and communities in a context of deep mistrust and hostility towards the police,” Anderson says. “There is a great hope that they make local policing more effective and accountable.”

Ex-convict and former gang member Lews Mathiews joined the Cape Flats CPF, which focuses on reducing the number of illegal firearms in circulation, in 2019. He tells Next City that communities have more trust in CPFs than police.

As a former gang member, Mathiews is involved in peer to peer influence “mainly encouraging gang members to surrender unlicensed guns to the police,” he says.

“For a fact, crime cannot be prevented by police officials alone, that is why the government saw the need to involve community members in their new strategy of policing and fighting crime within communities,” he adds.

Not only are community members believed to be more informed about goings-on within their neighborhoods, they’re also prepared to protect their neighborhoods, Mathiews says. “In gang-riddled areas like here in the Cape Flats, police also feel unsafe. That is why sometimes they are reluctant to respond to emergency calls.”

According to Cele, the country’s police minister, there are currently 772 functional CPFs countrywide. That’s a more than 25% increase from five years ago — a welcome spike, according to Cele.

“It is clear that police need communities and communities need the police, if we are to win this fight against crime,” Cele tells Next City. “We know and appreciate the role of CPFs, neighborhood watches, street patrollers and similar anti-crime structures in the policing value chain.”

The success story of CPFs

The Nyanga area in Cape Town has for the past years been labeled the murder Capital of South Africa. However, since the revival of CPFs in the area four years ago, the area has witnessed a notable reduction in crime. In the last quarter of 2021, Nyanga recorded 44 murders, a 24% drop from 58 in the previous quarter, according to a presentation made in Parliament by Minister Cele in early 2022.

“We started having social crime prevention projects. We implemented them with the support of our social partner and I think that assisted us in terms of giving us the confidence of the community. We now hope to sustain what we have achieved already and we are able to deal with the other challenges that are facing us like your violence against women and children as well as car hijackings,” says CPF chairperson Martin Makasi.

Another success story of CPFs in Cape Town is the Grabouw CPF which observed a decrease in crime during this festive season compared to the previous years as they rolled out patrol services for the first time.

The CPF chairperson in Grabouw, David Williams, says ever since they launched an ‘Operational Safer Community Festive Season’ led by a group of 35 Youth Patrol Services on December 5 2021, they have observed few crime incidents in their area.

“We have seen a decrease of crime with patrol officers that we are having in our community. It has had an impact in the decrease of crime in Grabouw. These groups of young people are out there every day. They go to the hotspots and community areas promoting safety, patrolling those areas and confiscating dangerous weapons and handing them over to SAPS and ensuring that every resident in Grabouw feels safe,” Williams says.

The developments in Cape Town are a reflection of what many communities in the country have been experiencing since the revival of CPFs.

To be sure, the results aren’t uniform: CPFs have had a mixed impact across the country. Success relies on collaboration between police and residents. Other provinces have realized a more organised and effective CPFs, while others lack comprehensive coordination. Minister Cele tells Next City that the Western Cape, Eastern Cape and Gauteng provinces have “more systematized and synchronized CPFs compared to other provinces.”

Another female CPF leader Nomsa Maluleke, chairperson of the Khusile CPF, agrees some fora have been more successful than others. “But where both sides [police and community members] have bought into the partnership and brought energy and commitment to it, the forums have made the streets a great deal safer.”

Maluleke says police attitudes and lack of accountability can stymie the effectiveness of CPFs: “The police should not consider themselves as superior to community members, and they should always take responsibility for their actions.”

Many members of the public are also pushing for CPFs to receive more government resources to function more effectively. But as CPFs have often become intertwined with local political contestation and power broking, there is uncertainty over how this should be done.

“There is also a great suspicion that CPFs are a vehicle for local inter-organization rivalries and gatekeeper politics,” says Anderson. “Resourcing CPFs risks creating perverse incentives for ‘voluntary’ participation and could enhance the potential for local safety and security to become a site of patronage.” That, he believes, would more likely compound CPF dysfunction than support effective community participation in public safety.

Still, community members are calling to provide more funding and support to CPFs.

“I am hopeful that the government will continue to support CPFs and ensure that no more children and women are murdered on a silver platter like what the heartless criminals did to my baby,” Msipa tells Next City. “It is a wound that will never heal.”

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Colleta Dewa is a journalist based in South Africa. She has worked for the Southern Times newspaper and the Zimbabwe Broadcasting Corporation, and her work has also been published by The Guardian, Real News Network, Unbias The News and Equal Times, among others.

Tags: policepublic safetywomensouth africaiwdjohannesburg

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