October 30, 2023

Urban Security: Voices From Johannesburg, South Africa

Samson Faboye

In his latest blog post, Samson explores the localized terminology for criminal activities and highlights concerns such as car hijackings and street shootings, often attributed to socioeconomic inequalities and a failing justice system.

Cars in a street in Johannesburg

Continuing my inquiry on the intrigues of security and crime in Johannesburg, I took to the streets to get feelers from residents about their urban safety and perception of how well the South African is fulfilling its part of the social contract.

Depending on locality, human actions are described in everyday parlance either as a catchphrase, code word or slang. Despite being described in the English Language, criminal activities in Johannesburg and widely South Africa have localised terminologies that have gained traction in everyday South African conversation. Hijacking or carjacking means car theft, usually at gunpoint; mugging refers to street gang harassment of a passerby to the extent of dispossession of personal effects. Having learnt the parlance of some local criminal acts – criminal actions of concern in Johannesburg are hijacking, house breaks-ins, and walk-by or drive-by shootings. Most respondents acclaimed car hijackings as a crime of concern

“..Yeah, car hijacking is the top of the list. And then also there's this… I'm not sure if it's a trend whereby people just go around shooting people for no reason. I don't know what is the motive behind that. But  it's happening, we hear so many people being shot almost every week, for no reason…”.

Concerns about socioeconomic inequalities and a failing justice system are said to be the driver of the enumerated crimes, as another respondent acclaims.

Resigned to despair for fear of the unknown, my respondents, having experienced car hijackings themselves, offered mitigation measures and suggestions. Adoption of digital technology as crime mitigation measure was a mutual notion as another respondent explained.

“I've got a tracker app on my phone. Should there be an incident whereby some people are following me, I get to call for help immediately on the app. I know they [help] won't immediately come at that particular moment, but at least I would have alerted them that something I'm suspecting is about to happen. And also, I get to, obviously, check my vehicle. Yeah, there's a concern, I fee, there's no measure of identifying the user of the device of the technological device. Because if you get hijacked, and they can open your phone, they can stop the checkout people from responding just by having access to your phone. So there is no digital method to identify the person that's using the device at that moment. So that's the point of concern.”.

Aside from the South African Police Service (SAPS) and the Johannesburg Metropolitan Police Department (JMPD), the security architecture of Johannesburg also features private security firms that offer armed response services on call. Most residences within the urban core of Johannesburg rely on the ‘Armed Response’ Service for home security, SAPS comes as a secondary security layer while the JMPD sorts traffic matters. Private security firms are rated as the most reliable however, their jurisdiction only covers buildings and complexes subscribed to their services.

Expressing concern about lapses in Johannesburg's extant informal security architecture, a respondent elaborates…

“we drive on the streets, we exit our complexes, we exit our buildings, and then we're now driving on the streets.. it's every man for himself. So if we can get safety and security officers like the government, the police officers, if they can be visible on the streets, that would be nice, but at this moment, you can drive and drag the whole day and not even spot a single police vehicle”

Incorporating digital components into the security architecture might not entirely curb insecurity, rather, respondents desire more police presence on the streets as an assurance. This concern might not be farfetched as, despite CCTV cameras in most buildings and roads, criminals perpetrate havoc unchecked despite viral public footage. The will power of the government to prosecute criminal acts fair and square would complement digitisation efforts of public security in Johannesburg.