“You have to do it for yourselves,” a retired eThekwini Municipality employee told me a few days ago. We had, by chance, struck up a conversation as we peered down the newly formed sludge canyon that once housed multiple units at the exclusive Surfside complex in Umdloti, on the North Coast of KZN.
The complex lost 12 units in the April floods and another 14 following the latest rains at the weekend.
As we were talking, a team of workers — all privately employed — were clearing away collapsed trees and foliage. The road on which we were standing had also collapsed at one point, leaving the community on the one side, which leads to a cul-de-sac, without any means of evacuating in their cars.
The private garden business and its workers had cleared a path through the bush to allow the trapped individuals to receive supplies from friends on the other side of the collapse. There were no municipal vehicles on site.
In Umdloti, the idea of self-determination has been in the pipeline for years, and has found expression in what is called the Umdloti Smart Village. The coastal town is essentially turning itself into a type of private estate. Once the plan is fully operational, the hamlet will have dedicated armed patrol vehicles, multiple cameras, including numberplate recognition, a CCTV monitoring room, a community smartphone app and mobile panic systems, among others. The community wants to create a safe environment for residents, businesses and tourists. After all, natural disasters and flooding may only come once every 100 years, but crime is an everyday blight that destroys lives and progress.
The former eThekwini employee was simply telling me something that we all know: our ANC-headed local, provincial and national government has abdicated its duty to serve and protect.
Sure, you may say, Umdloti is an extremely affluent area that can afford such extravagance, but this type of thinking is no longer the preserve of the rich. In eThekwini, a cross-section of communities are installing resident-funded CCTV infrastructure, creating local control rooms that are linked to volunteer-based armed response teams. One businessperson specialising in such told me that he had installed over 600 cameras in the city, funded exclusively by community organisations.
These communities are using technology to fight crime. Many are doing this without any SAPS or Metro Police involvement. Why? Because they simply do not trust these services, which abandoned them less than a year ago during the July riots.
It is often also the police who are found to be in cahoots with criminal syndicates. As a relatively benign example, it is no secret that it was SAPS fuelling the illicit cigarette trade during the lockdown-induced tobacco bans in 2020.
The retired eThekwini employee I spoke to knew the reality, but a current employee I recently had a mild run in with, did not. Several weeks back, the city’s top Metro cop, Steve Middleton, posted images on Facebook of Newlands residents’ manning a community-funded roadblock. Middleton wrote about how this is not allowed, saying that his officers would act, and no doubt fine the transgressors. Of course, in the eyes of the public, the Metro Police force is an ineffectual political sycophant unable to do the basics. Many of these officers are seen only to be protecting overpaid politicians or grabbing at low-hanging fruit, such as fining residents at the beach front for expired vehicle licences.
They vanished during the July riots, only to reappear to chastise residents for barricading roads in order to protect their families in the absence of Metro and SAPS. They have also largely abdicated the responsibility of directing traffic during load shedding, to the city’s whoonga addicts. eThekwini’s CBD and various markets are filthy and dangerous; long-hauler trucks speed down residential roads without fear of fines, and the number of cars without number plates is concerning.
As residents, we judge the safety of an area according to if we would direct unsupervised tourists or visitors to certain areas. On this count, the City has failed spectacularly. Middleton’s rant was typical of senior government workers who demand that citizens follow the law and respect authority. They, however, are surrounded by VIP guards, courtesy of the taxpayer, and show little respect for the public. Middleton and his ilk are unable to read the room, the room in this case being an entire metro. It is a common downfall in ANC-governed structures. He should be pushing to allow communities to self-protect and having new bylaws drafted. One more road secured by the public is one less road to police. The City should embark on creating a friendly and accessible environment to help communities take progressive steps to making their areas safe.
Middleton should be requesting access to these community camera networks and rebuild the trust deficit that exists. He should create public-private partnerships and encourage the installation of automatic number plate recognition technology to enhance the City’s own policing capabilities.
What leaders are incapable of grasping is that communities do not spend money on cameras, security guards, and yes, boom gates, because they have money to burn. This is borne out of desperation that is driven by the fear and frustration of armed criminals, who are too often in cahoots with the authorities.
We have been forced to self-protect because the authorities we pay, continually fail to protect us. Once ANC-governed structures accept that, they may be able to change things. But for most of us, we believe that it is far, far too late.
• Jonathan Erasmus is a researcher and writer for the Organisation Undoing Tax Abuse (Outa).