When Safety and Security Minister Steve Tshwete announced the need to "deal with crime the way a bulldog deals with a bone", he could not have envisaged a more suitably placed or aptly named candidate as Bulldog Rathokolo.
Named for his persistence, stamina and determination to see things through, Bulldog looks set to take a bite out of violent crime in Alexandra. As chairperson of the Sector 4 Anticrime Patrol Group, he speaks with authority;
"You need action", he explains, "all too often there are meetings with no action."
For a crime-weary public living with daily exposure to violence, the call for action is a familiar refrain that stretches back into the 1980s. 'Action' then, during the height of apartheid repression, included the notorious "people's courts".
Alleged political informers (impimpis) and sell-outs were tried, sentenced and often violently punished on the spot in the name of popular justice.
While the political playing fields have shifted, people's courts continue to develop spontaneously around crime.
Those accused of murder, rape, hijackings, and robbery are regular victims of community action. Instant justice, including death, severe sjamboking and stabbing, testifies to public law of this nature. Dysfunctional and illegitimate in the eyes of many, the absence of a working criminal justice system, has led to the recent mushrooming of vigilante groups throughout the country, from Mapogo-a-Mathamaga, to Pagad.
So, what separates the Sector 4 group from its violent predecessors and contemporary counterparts? How can a community tackle crime without resorting to vigilante violence?
The action that Bulldog demands is disciplined and lawful: "You can't fight crime with crime." The community must work with the police and the courts, rather than against them. It was the police who introduced the idea of sector policing to Bulldog at a council meeting last August.
Sector policing involves the sub-division of a policing precinct into small geographical areas or sectors. Each sector is managed by fulltime police officers who work with the local community. The idea is to localise and contain the management of crime within each sector, thereby maximising police resources and democratising policing through community involvement.
Sector policing seems particularly pertinent in Alexandra, which has an estimated population of between 800 000 and 1 million and a police force of only 240 members.
Compared with the national average of one officer for every 408 people, each police officer in Alexandra is responsible for about 3 500 people.
In the 12 months since they began operating, Sector 4 has recovered more than 60 illegal firearms. They also claim there has been a "drastic" drop in serious crime levels. The group is particularly proud of their success at the Helen Joseph Hostel, a women's hostel, within their precinct.
Winnie Mdakane, a hostel resident and member of the Patrol Group, explains that serious crime was a daily part of hostel life.
"A woman was shot dead in her room, others were raped, others had their cell phones and bags and earrings and necklaces taken from them".
She said both the police and security guards were unable to put an end to the crime. It was only once the women themselves got involved and joined the patrol group, that they noticed a difference.
Community participation is the key to the group's success. All of the group's 150 members live in Sector 4. Approximately 50 members are women. The group patrols only on Friday and Saturday nights from 8:30pm to 5am. They split up into three teams of 50 people and walk in parallels across a specified street grid. Bulldog explains that inadequate resources and lack of communication equipment prevent the group from being even more successful.
While the group is hoping to find a "good Samaritan" to assist with their logistics, the team agrees members should not receive payment for their participation. They feel that membership should be completely voluntary, motivated by wanting "to help the community", rather than self-enrichment.
This is dangerous territory and already four members have been shot while patrolling but Bulldog feels this demonstrates the impact the group is having.
"We are disturbing criminals. Obviously if you are a criminal and somebody is fighting criminals, you will try to stop them."
Not surprisingly, fear for personal safety deters some residents from participating in patrol group initiatives. According to Bulldog, however, a high level of violence is every reason to get involved because "you die even if you do not patrol".
It is their close relationship with the police that sets them apart from vigilante groups who take the law into their own hands.
"We operate very much like informers but the difference is we bring the culprits to the police, unlike just informing and leaving it at that".
Given the apparent failure of community policing forums to diminish crime, and the problems associated with vigilante justice, the Sector 4 Patrol Group may offer a third alternative for community policing.
A more detailed evaluation is required. As Bill Dixon of the Institute of Criminology comments, "it is far too early to say whether… sector policing can deliver the kind of effective, accountable and democratic policing South Africa needs but it can provide a useful new framework for maximizing resources and improving service delivery at a neighbourhood level".
In the meantime, Bulldog persists, teeth firmly clenched around the bone of crime, operating with this simple philosophy: "leave no room for criminals but be trustworthy and have good intentions. You are here to help and not rob".
Bronwyn Harris is a former Project Manager at the Centre for the Study of Violence and Reconciliation.
Originally published in the City Press, 17 September 2000.