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July 6, 2007 6:19 pm

Paradise residents home in on crime

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Rod Panagos, a neighbourhood watch patroller in the Cape valley of Hout Bay, had been on duty for barely five minutes when the co-ordinator’s radio in the scheme’s control room crackled into life. It was just after 9pm. A woman called Josephine was on the line in panic. A man was in her garden trying to break into her home.

“Josephine, can you see him?” said the radio operator. “Lock the door. Don’t put the phone down. I am still here.” Moments later a message was being sent to hundreds of people tuned into the neighbourhood watch frequency: “We have an intruder at 35 Penzance.” And Mr Panagos, a 46-year-old small businessman, was on his way, screeching up the valley’s roads, night-vision goggles, two-way radio and pepper gun at his side, in the latest attempt by locals to help police combat that scourge of South Africa, violent crime.

Flanked by Table Mountain just south of Cape Town, and overlooking the Atlantic rollers, Hout Bay has to be a contender for the most stunning real estate in South Africa. With the country reeling from statistics that show murders and armed robberies rising, it also, the authorities hope, offers a case study in how communities can cut crime.

Hout Bay got together and said: “Thank you, that is enough,” said Captain Gerhard van den Bergh, the deputy police chief, recalling the foundation of the neighbourhood watch scheme two years ago after the murder of a tourist at a bed and breakfast. “Property values were lowering. People wanted to move out.

“I thought there was no way this would work. But when people stood up and said ‘we’re tired of crime’, they meant it. There were 18 attacks in people’s homes in 2005. There have been two so far this year. If we all change attitudes, stop blaming each other and get involved, we can beat crime.” Under apartheid Hout Bay was a sleepy fishing village. Over the past decade, however, it has become a microcosm of racial and economic divides, and seen a sharp rise in crime.

In the centre of the valley, is an affluent, mainly white, community of some 15,000 people whose part-time residents include the casino magnate Sol Kerzner, owner of one of Hout Bay’s grandest homes.

Tucked away, by the sea, is Hangberg, a run-down township of 10,000 people of mixed race. And then, clinging to a hillside overlooking the white suburbs, is the fast-growing Imizamo Yethu squatter camp of about 15,000 black South Africans, living mainly in shacks, many without electricity and with only the most basic sanitation.

“There can be few places in the world where the contrast is so vivid,” said Niall Mellon, an Irish property developer who has set up a charity, which has sponsored the building of 450 brick houses in the township.

“They [whites and blacks] stare at each other across the valley.” Initially he infuriated some whites who feared his project helped to entrench the township.

But he believes there is now a greater co-operation in the valley – not least because of an acceptance that better amenities in the township, as well as joint policing, will lead to a reduction of crime.

Morris Nongabe, the local Communist party leader, who heads the township’s neighbourhood watch scheme, highlights that it too is ravaged by crime. Most nights, groups of up to 10 men patrol through the shacks.

“We are encouraging everyone to be the eyes and ears so we can be crime-free,” he says.

He says that the crime wave that hit Hout Bay from 2000 onwards had nothing to do with locals.

The new two-storey police station on the junction opposite the township sends out a different message. But Capt Van den Bergh salutes the township’s commitment to the neighbourhood watch scheme, saying he never thought it would work in such a divided valley. Now the police, private security firms – whose industry employs 300,000 people across the country – and the volunteers are linked via radios, provided by businesses.

Mr Panagos, who runs outdoor corporate team-building exercises, says people from all over South Africa have contacted the volunteers for advice.

So can this be a role model for South Africa? Charles Nqakula, the embattled safety and security minister, is pinning his hopes on community police programmes. “The situation is not as hopeless as some people would want to make it,” he told the Financial Times. “There are effective responses to the fight against crime.

“Residents are at the coalface either as victims or as participants. When they work together with the law enforcement agencies the partnership becomes very formidable.”

But many have lost confidence in government pledges over crime.

The South African Chamber of Business warned that the crime figures “pose a larger threat” to the business mood than any economic developments.

And even with the new scheme Hout Bay is, after dark, like so much of South Africa, deeply jittery. As Mr Panagos waited just down from 35 Penzance Road his radio crackled into life: “Suspect wearing red cap, with dark top and stripes on sleeves.”

“We have changed people’s thinking,” he said later when it was clear the suspect had escaped.

“This has had a very positive impact. But we don’t want to live like this.”

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