It is early Saturday morning in Hillbrow on Kotze Street, next to the Fontana High Point Inn. Once a pit stop for many a hungry reveller on their way home from a night of carousing in the fashionable joints of the 1960s to the early 2000s, the pavement outside the 24-hour department store is now not even a shadow of its former self.
A dozen or so homeless young men, filthy blankets covering their ill-fed, inadequately dressed and rancid bodies, sleep on the pavement. “These are all the nyaope boys,” says 45-year-old Rashad “Corky” Mahomed, manager at Bad Boyz Security, one of the thousands of security companies operating in South Africa’s lucrative security industry. He is at the beginning of a 12-hour shift.
The principal ingredient in nyaope is cheap heroin. Mahomed gestures across the street to a group of 20-something-year-old men, who, with practiced nonchalance and an air of menace, eye passing pedestrians. “Those are the Nigerian drug dealers.” His nose involuntarily contorts in disgust at the smell of urine and filth from the sewage-filled streets. “I don’t want to sound like I’m xenophobic, but these guys are no good.”
Mahomed rests his hand – cowboy style – on the gun strapped to his waist. “Our government is failing us. Look: all you get around here are bars. Nothing else.” It is from these streets that, from time to a time, a video showing unspeakable acts of violence goes viral.
The most recent showed a young man in his 20s robbing an elderly gentleman. The younger man holds the older man by his belt as he threatens him with a broken bottle. But the familiar South African tale of an innocent civilian losing his life at the hands of a criminal has a violent twist as a security guard accosts the robber. The older victim, realising help is at hand, starts fighting back, attacking the young robber. Now outnumbered, the robber tries to run away, but he is cornered and street justice is swiftly meted out. The video ends with the intended victim seeming to stab the robber. Many a social media user applauded this result.
“We recorded that,” says Corky proudly as he sips coffee from a mug in a spacious first-floor, three-bedroom flat, which has been converted into an office and a surveillance room on Quartz Street. He claims the man was arrested and is expected to appear in court soon.
In this office, three men in their 30s scrutinise a bank of 15 screens showing activity on the streets. A young family – a woman, a man and a toddler lovingly holding her father’s hand while he talks absentmindedly on his phone – walks down the streets. Behind them a group of three youngsters hurry. Suddenly alert, 32-year-old Tinashe Dikito deftly manipulates a joystick controlling a video camera situated on a street pole. The image on the screens is zoomed in, and the three men zip past the young family, seemingly oblivious of their presence. “Okay. For a minute there, I thought we might have some trouble,” he laughs. “Cellphone robberies are very common,” explains Mahomed. Phones are as good as cash, because they’re so easy to sell.
Bad Boyz – probably named after the 1995 crime thriller starring Will Smith and Martin Lawrence – operates 15 cameras across Hillbrow, which feed footage to a central point. From here, a team of 22 foot patrollers are coordinated. “We look for suspicious behaviour, body language, people gathering,” he says. When a crime takes place, the security company is in contact with the South African police. “We have a close relationship,” says Mahomed.
The hours and hours of footage recorded daily sometimes comes in handy for the police. “A lot of times police come to us and say, ‘Hey, this and that happened here, was your camera on?’” relates Mahomed. “This footage is provided on the proviso that a case has been registered with the police. No member of the public can come in and demand footage,” explains Dikito.
The company is contracted to monitor 193 buildings in Hillbrow. “We primarily look after buildings, their tenants and the community,” he explains, adding that "hijacked buildings" are a major problem in the area.
There are cameras in the entrances, exits and in lifts, plus each building has two security guards posted at the entrance. “Before we had cameras in the lifts, people were damaging them and peeing in them. Look now,” says Mahomed, directing attention to a feed on a monitor. It shows a young girl, around six, randomly pressing buttons in a lift. “See, she’s playing with the lift,” he tuts.
Criminals tend to target strangers to the area, says Dikito. “When they see a guy is new to the area, that’s when they target him,” he says, adding wryly that I am likely to be targeted.
While Hillbrow may have a high incidence of crime, it is not that different from the rest of South Africa. “There’s life here. There’s people who live here, go to work. But you have your criminal elements as well. Most of the criminals who operate in this area come from outside. They don’t have their homes here,” says Mahomed.
So what kinds of criminal are to be found on these streets? “We have all our fraudsters here around Hillbrow, housebreakers and a lot of the crime is opportunistic by nyaope boys who rob people,” he says.
While violent crime might be top of the agenda for the security company, a slightly different crime is also rife in this flatland: the theft of clothing from washing lines. “People hang their washing and a few hours later they find someone has stolen it,” explains Dikito. “We have a book with the security, and when you go to the washing line, you have to sign in, and say I’m going to hang or to collect.” Should there be a complaint of washing getting lost, a register check followed by reviewing the security camera footage soon resolves the complaint.
Dealing with crime in what is considered to be one of the most crime-infested locales in the country must take a special kind of constitution. Mahomed is convinced you can’t show fear. “If you have too much fear, it can kill you. You fear so much you’re not thinking properly and doing what can protect you. When you stop fearing, you just become aware.” He prepares to knock off his shift. It is 10 pm. Not much has happened. “Today was a good day,” he smiles.