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Isha Bekia

The power of community activism

Apr 28, 2008 | SA Media, SA's democracy


We are becoming more and more isolated because of our fear of violent crime. We fear our own neighbours and have turned our homes, where possible, into solitary islands, blocking ourselves and our families off from the rest of the world. Trust in our society is being eroded as we focus inward to our private space for protection. The Community Active Protection (CAP) initiative achieves the opposite: it is about a return to public space. CAP builds communities and enables us to reach out to others and to work together against a common foe, crime.

Strong communities make strong societies. G-d says in the book of Genesis: “It is not good for man to be alone.” Communities are formed when people leave their private space to form associations and groups with other human beings. The most basic unit of community is the family. The broadening of these units into larger communities of neighbourhoods, schools, places of worship and welfare organisations is about the building of a vibrant community-based society. And in the case of South Africa, building this society ideally needs to include a way of protecting it from crime.

When facing any major challenge, our society has to respond at all levels: that of government, community and the individual. And so too, in the fight against crime, we need to respond at all levels. Government is working all the time to improve its performance in this area. Private individuals need to take precautions and be vigilant in securing themselves and their families to the best of their ability. What is absolutely vital is for the other component of society, namely community, to engage with unity and purpose and to take responsibility also for the fight against crime. And this is what CAP is all about. It is a project that seeks to harness the creative energy of volunteer community activists and indeed all members of the community in the fight against crime.

CAP is based on the concept of reclaiming public space, as opposed to the private security model where the focus is on securing only one’s own property behind high walls and gates. In the latter model, criminals are able to freely operate in the public areas around our homes, giving them the space and time to find ways to access our “secured” homes or those of our neighbours. The CAP concept strives to keep crime out of public space allowing residents to “take back” their own streets and neighbourhoods, without erecting booms and gate. Every aspect of CAP operations has been carefully researched with top legal experts so as to ensure full compliance with the laws and constitution of South Africa.

The CAP initiative has drastically reduced contact crime. Take one example. In the greater Glenhazel area, in October 2006 the month before it was launched, there were at least 17 contact crimes – person-to-person crimes with weapons involved. In October 2007, there were none. On average throughout the project’s operations there has been about an 80% reduction in contact crime.

The CAP initiative is people-driven community activism at its best and is an exemplary model of grassroots democracy. Initially, the community sets up a task team of concerned and capable residents, a chairman is selected, and a committee formed. The team then implements the CAP plan through extensive community meetings and consultation, through which the committee aims to get the buy-in and support from all residents. A resident forum that includes different stakeholders, such as home owners and domestic employees are galvanised to actively participate in the project by, for example, reporting suspicious activity, doing block-watch duty and attending security educational programs. In this way CAP is a nation-building initiative bringing people together as a community from vastly different backgrounds. A community-based incident command and control centre directs the entire project for all the seven CAP areas.

Community involvement, as a separate component of society, is fundamental to the philosophy of the South African government. President Thabo Mbeki, in his State of the Nation address this year, said that we will only win the war against crime “if we build an enduring partnership in actual practice within our communities and between the communities and the police, to make life more and more difficult for the criminals”. He added: “We are heartened by the resolve shown by leaders of the business and religious communities further to strengthen such partnerships on the ground, and to give of their time and resources to strengthen the fight against crime. Government will play its part to ensure that these partnerships actually work, and that we all act together to discharge the responsibility to protect our citizens”.

CAP is turning this government philosophy into action by supporting and working with the South African Police Services, at all levels, from sector to station to provincial authorities. CAP is founded on communities, in partnership with police, taking responsibility for their own areas. That, of course, is the great power of community. People have a sense of ownership of their immediate environment and that powerful force has to be encouraged and harnessed for the greater good.

Recently, an editorial of The Star criticised CAP for not directing all the community’s efforts through the police. Government policy, however, differs from this view, as it sees community activism as a force that needs to be separately nurtured, albeit in partnership with the police. If we only strengthen state institutions and not the community networks, a major powerhouse of potential energy and networking will be lost to our country. The CAP project has had a very positive impact on our national imperative of nation-building as it builds communities against crime across racial and religious barriers because the victims of crime come from every colour of our beautiful rainbow nation. The most successful crime fighting is taking place in the context of community activism. For example, the Sector Four group in Alexandra is famous for its brave and successful efforts in its fight against crime. There is no doubt that financial resources can improve community efforts in all parts of the country and it is important to find a way to assist relatively poorer communities.

As we go forward to deal with all of our challenges as a nation, let us never forget the power of community. Let us move forward through community activism to the future to defeat all of the scourges of our day: poverty, HIV/AIDS and crime. Let us stand up and stand together and, with G-d’s help, we will succeed.