South Africa: Community Volunteers Try to Keep Gugulethu Safe

13 November 2019

Vuyo Ngxukuma has been shot seven times but he says that isn't going to stop him patrolling Gugulethu with the Asijiki Neighbourhood Watch.

Ngxukuma, a backyarder living with his girlfriend and two young children, now limps and uses a crutch for support. "I'm not going to stop trying to keep my township safe because of this," he says.

Formed in 2013 by Vuyisile Vena and Bongani Qotole, Asijiki now has more than 40 volunteers. Vena and Qotole say they started the patrols because they were tired of "being woken up by screams coming from outside from people who were being robbed on their way to work or school".

But Vena says they would appreciate more support from the government and the police.

"We endanger our lives on a daily basis, and it is disheartening that when we go to the police station to report crimes or alert police to a crime, we are told there are no vans available, or when we see criminals we bring in to the station being released in a day or two," says Vena.

Asijiki members patrol in small groups morning and night, Monday to Sunday, starting from 5am, when residents go to work. They wear yellow reflective jackets with "Safety Patrol" written on the back.

"Part of our job is retrieving stolen goods, keeping the streets safe, and being of help to residents who are affected by crime," says Vena.

Qotole says since starting the patrols in 2013, 2017 was the worst year for them as "gangsterism became such a huge problem".

"These small boys of school-going age would get into serious fights, throw bricks at each other, torch houses. We feared for our lives, but we told ourselves that we would not be ruled by children who are brought up by us."

He said it was a proud moment when they received their jackets because it meant that their work in Gugulethu was being taken seriously. They received training as well through the Department of Community Safety.

Qotole says he would like the department to play a more active role in making sure that more neighbourhood watch members were considered for job opportunities and for the department to provide different uniforms to patrollers.

"We have a big problem with the reflective jackets because now we have noticed that criminals wear them as well. Where they get them, we do not know. We have had complaints before from residents claiming that they were robbed by neighbourhood watch members. If we could get jackets that are a different colour, that would help us a lot," said Vena.

It was during a patrol on a Saturday night, while wearing his reflective jacket, that Ngxukuma was shot seven times not far from a popular tshisanyama in Gugulethu NY50.

"I was with my friend, also an Asijiki patroller, Siyabonga Ngete. We were on duty because that Saturday there was a function happening at the tshisanyama, so it was packed.

"Because it was a bit chilly, Siya decided to go home to get an extra jacket. He was shot on the way. I managed to get some residents to take him to hospital.

"On my way back from the hospital, going to Siya's house to get him clothes, just a few houses away from the tshisanyama, there was someone hiding next to a stream, a young man, he looked like he was in his early twenties.

"I thought it was someone drunk, so while passing I greeted him. He greeted back then immediately put on a balaclava. I ask him what's up with the balaclava. He then says, 'Voetsek', takes out a gun and starts shooting. I started running but fell. I realised that he had shot me in the leg," said Ngxukuma.

He said the man stood on top of him while he was down and kept firing at him. One bullet hit the front of his cap. "I don't know how I survived. But here I am. Nothing can kill me after that," said Ngxukuma.

He showed GroundUp his reflective jacket with seven bullet holes in it.

"This incident is not going to stop me. I do this because I want to keep my township safe and I won't be stopped by these boys. Though I saw his face, I did not report the incident to the police because of fear that if that boy found out that I had reported him, he might target my family."

Ngete also continues to patrol in spite of his injury.

All the men said they would continue patrolling NY 78, NY 3 and NY 4 in Gugulethu despite the dangers, and their dream would be to have full equipment for all members: walkie-talkies, pepper sprays and torches. They would also like their own space to use as an office and for meetings.

"There's a lot of infighting between members over equipment because there is not enough for everyone. And when we have our meetings, we ask one of the neighbouring schools for a classroom," said Vena.

"I would like to appeal to parents to work with us. They must stop protecting and hiding their children when they know that their child has committed a crime," said Qotole.

Provincial Department of Community Safety spokesperson Cayla Murray said like all accredited neighbourhood watches, Asijiki received a once-off starter pack from the department which included equipment like reflective vests, torches, a first aid kit, a fire extinguisher, safety whistles and a storage box.

Accredited neighbourhood watches also receive a maximum amount of R10,000. This could be used to cover bank charges, administration costs and or operational support.

Asked about reflective jackets being worn by people who were not part of the neighbourhood watch, Murray said, "Accredited neighbourhood watch members are issued an ID. You can confirm whether an individual indeed belongs to a neighbourhood watch by requesting to see this ID."

GroundUp has tried since last week to get comment from the Gugulethu police.

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