Children are being lured into illegal abalone poaching in the Overstrand area with promises of fashion and drugs by organised gang syndicates that understaffed police stations in small towns cannot handle alone, the Western Cape police ombud said on Thursday.
“The firm of the 28s have actually employed a well-known gangster to run abalone poaching,” Johan Brand told the Western Cape legislature’s committee of safety.
In addition, police numbers in the province, and that area, are so much lower than they should be, that police officers can sometimes do no more than stand by and watch the poachers of abalone and rock lobster.
He said that in Gansbaai on one occasion, there were at least 300 poachers on the water, too many for the police to handle.
He told the committee, chaired by DA member of the provincial parliament Reagan Allen, that although abalone poaching was “driving crime” in the area, stopping it from happening in the first place did not seem to be a priority for police and the governments charged with protecting the environment.
“The assumption can be made that the focus has shifted away from abalone-related crimes,” he said.
His presentation came after receiving comments, and holding public hearings in Overstrand towns including Pearly Beach, Gansbaai, Masikhane, Stanford, Kleinmond, Mt Pleasant and Betty’s Bay on the services they were getting from the police generally.
Abalone poaching emerged as a theme, but some people complained that even if they gave the police number plates, nothing was done.
The police ombud’s mandate is to look into complaints regarding the service received by the police, and during the public hearings people poured their hearts out.
People complained of slow response times by police, the poaching, and of damage to property during protests in some of the pretty seaside towns because there are not enough local police available in the early stages of the protest.
Brand said that because abalone has not been given the same protected status as rhino or cycads for example, it is a low priority for police.
Even if the local police wanted to act on poaching, they would be outnumbered because of severe under-staffing at police stations, and not enough cars.
He said the communities of Overstrand are finding abalone poaching “scary”.
Children are dropping out of school to be runners, families are torn apart, high speed vehicles take to the roads, and “gangsters” are going to live in Gansbaai.
He said local police officers are afraid to go to Hawston by themselves if there is a protest.
They would rather wait for Public Order Police, based in Paarl, to make the journey and this takes hours.
There is also only one water cannon to serve the entire Western Cape during protests. He said the longer it takes for the back up to get there, the greater the window for damage to property during protests.
He said that in spite of his best efforts, he could not get the national government to provide more police officers and vehicles for Overstrand, which includes the picturesque towns of Gansbaai and Hermanus.
“All stations are below their granted figures for policing,” he said.
In Hermanus the ratio of police officers to people is 638 to one, for example.
The United Nations recommends 220 to one. He said all stations are also below the number of vehicles they need and in Kleinmond officers sometimes have to borrow a vehicle to take a detainee to court.
Absenteeism among police officers is also increasing, and he attributes this to the low morale of officers, and that they might be fearing for their lives due to the organised crime phenomenon in the area.
The R43 has been closed several times, and the local police cannot do much to reopen the roads without back-up.
He said it is in these tense waiting periods for back-up that the rising reports of alleged police brutality occur.
“That is when you hear of someone shot in the leg,” he said.
The damages and losses to businesses during this waiting period for reinforcements is also severe, running into the hundreds of millions of rand.
The result of not having enough police and the police taking long to arrive at volatile situations, has included the destruction of a dog unit’s building at Hawston seven years ago, which has not been replaced, a satellite police station in Hermanus, and a top of the range marine vessel used to fight poaching.
The dogs from the canine unit are currently staying at the Hermanus SPCA when not on duty, while the people at the dog unit are based at a temporary premises, which is costing SAPS R300,000 a year.
He said communities are losing faith in the police because they are slow to respond due to vast distances they must travel. Crimes are being under-reported because it is expensive to catch a taxi to a police station.
This, in turn, is causing vigilantism.
He said an offer of R5m by the Western Cape government to the provincial police to pay for a police reservist programme, was rejected by the police.
Brand said he asked for an interview with the Western Cape head of supply chain management for more information on their problems with cars and equipment, but was unsuccessful.
He issued a directive in terms of the Police Act for the interview to be granted.
“But it was ignored by the SA Police Service.”
He said that is why he referred these issues to the MEC of Community Safety Albert Fritz.
He claimed that the police’s conviction rate calculation was giving a skewed picture due to a formula which does not take into account cases pending in court, and settled cases.
The ombud asked the police for a response to provide a contingency plan regarding public violence in the Overstrand area but was told that the most protest actions that lead to violence arise out of service delivery complaints so the “role of the local authority” (the municipalities) regarding public order policing and crowd management “cannot be over-emphasised”.
He said the Department of Environmental Affairs told him 200 tons of confiscated abalone were currently being kept in their storage facility.
But, they had numerous burglaries, and specific stock counts were not always taken so abalone valued at R40m has been lost to “various criminal activities” in 13 cases.
“They [the police] are not looking at this from an organised crime perspective,” he said.
He said sea border policing is also at about 60% of its strength with no patrol vessel in Saldanha and only one in Cape Town harbour.
He called for an urgent review of staffing at Overstrand police stations, the number of vehicles they have; that there be a permanent Public Order Policing unit based there, and that the police deal with the community’s concerns of corruption.
He also recommends that abalone poaching be listed as a serious crime.
“Poachers walk freely and nobody polices it.”
“I must commend the communities of Overstrand. It doesn’t matter which region, it doesn’t matter which race or gender they’re from. It really is an eye opener to interview those communities.”