The ex-offenders working towards a safer Johannesburg

Ex-prison gang leader Collin Khumalo employs 258 wardens in the South African city, but moral questions abound.

Safety Wardens
Taxi passengers look on as former offender Bennett Ranthoka patrols Joe Slovo Drive, a once-notorious crime spot in Johannesburg [Tshego Mmahlatji/Al Jazeera]

Johannesburg, South Africa – Joe Slovo Drive is a gateway to Johannesburg’s inner city. It leads to an intersection into town or up to a freeway onto multiple nodes of the metropolis. For years it was plagued by crime. 

People were urged to beware of criminals who would “smash and grab” valuables from car seats, hold drivers at gunpoint to hijack their vehicles or steal from pedestrians.

Some avoided the road completely, creating a warren of alternative routes into the city.

At the intersection today, safety wardens stand at the traffic lights – two men dressed in shirts and ties, each holding a sjambok, a thin leather whip with a loaded history.

It was used to punish Malay slaves, by the Voortrekkers, to drive oxen and later became a symbol of apartheid police. More recently, the whip has been used at student rallies and in several malicious attacks.

Whether it is the controversial weapon or the presence of the men holding them – once criminals themselves – crime at the intersection has plummeted. 

Captain Munyai of the Jeppe Police Station said it has been a long time since the local station received a report of an incident.

“Since they’ve been standing there, our smash and grabs are very low. The crime rate there now is very low,” he told Al Jazeera. 

As crime fell, officers kept asking themselves: “Who’s the owner of this company? Who do they report to?”

I can only imagine some of the threats they must get from the criminals. I think they're very brave.

by Frank Leya, local resident

Collin Khumalo is an unusual candidate to lead an initiative cleaning up what was once one of Johannesburg’s hottest crime spots. 

In 1995, he was sentenced to life plus 45 years in jail for armed robbery and murder, where he ran a notorious prison gang.

Sitting in his simple office in South Africa‘s biggest city, almost five years after his release, he said: “When you’re in the gang, you become cold, you can’t love anyone, you don’t have sympathy for anyone.

“When you’re in that space, for me, fighting someone was, if I didn’t do it, I didn’t feel OK.”

In Kutama Sinthumule Correctional Centre, gangs used religious meetings as opportunities to strategise, issue orders, share weapons and get cannabis.

But in 2001, he met a pastor who “broke a wall … showed [me] that human beings can still love other human beings. I remember thinking that I wanted to change.”

His allies in prison insisted he couldn’t leave the gang, but Khumalo was sure.

“[I told them], ‘guys if you kill me you kill me, but I’m not coming back’.”

Safety warden Bennett Ranthoka takes pride in the difference his team have made in the area [Tshego Mmahlatji/Al Jazeera]
Safety warden Bennett Ranthoka takes pride in the difference his team have made in the area [Tshego Mmahlatji/Al Jazeera]

In his remaining years in prison, he concentrated on church and education and formed a committee called Fear Free Life, “a programme started by inmates addressing the core of rehabilitation of offenders,” he said. 

He wrote modules on moral regeneration, understanding gangsterism, how to leave gangs and adopting a positive lifestyle. 

After presenting the programme to prison management, Fear Free Life began classes. 

“In the first class, 60 students packed into a room meant for 30,” he said. “There was a hunger from people for transformation and change.”

When transferred to Johannesburg Prison, the programme travelled with Khumalo and was adopted across all four sections of the facility. 

‘It reduced crime’

In 2013 he was released on day parole and launched Fear Free Life as a non-profit organisation, setting up offices near Joe Slovo Drive.

Soon, he met local property owners who wanted to reduce crime in the area.

“Propertuity, Jozi Housing, Trafalgar, Mafadi all contributed something towards the project, and then it flew,” he said, clicking a finger. “It reduced crime at that intersection, I think it was from 100 to 0.”

This branch of the project, Urban Initiatives, now works in several areas of the city.

The safety wardens take an active role to keep the busy intersection crime-free [Tshego Mmahlatji/Al Jazeera]
The safety wardens take an active role to keep the busy intersection crime-free [Tshego Mmahlatji/Al Jazeera]

More than 250 people are now employed in the non-profit, most of whom are former offenders, “paid through the support of City Improvement Districts, property owners, business people that need our services,” Khumalo said.

Zola Dambula, chairperson of the local Community Police Forum, said: “The community around Berea are very much appreciative of their presence there.”

Despite its apparent success, the initiative raises questions about the possible threat of violence to deter criminals.

But according to Urban Initiatives finance manager, Darlington Radebe, the team of safety wardens stays in close contact with a security company, the Johannesburg Metropolitan Police Department and the South African Police Service in the area.

“The key to our strength is recruiting mostly reformed gang members and inmates and most of them they actually grew [up] on the streets, they know how the streets work,” said Radebe.

If criminals are armed, they use radio communication to call on security officers and a response team.

“We’re not a security company,” said Khumalo. “We mainly do patrolling, cleaning, and other jobs that our clients might require us to do within the ambits of the law.”

Because it is funded by the private sector, others question if Urban Initiatives is another example of how safety in the country is the reserve of people who can afford it.

South Africa’s private security industry is among the largest in the world. In 2017, a third more was spent on private security than the government’s police budget.

Regular commuters have formed a friendly relationship with the men on patrol [Tshego Mmahlatji/Al Jazeera]
Regular commuters have formed a friendly relationship with the men on patrol [Tshego Mmahlatji/Al Jazeera]

“The safety wardens patrolling Joe Slovo Rd at the Abel Rd intersection are yet another plaster on the festering wound of inequality in South Africa,” said Simon Sizwe Mayson, whose doctoral research and work in the neighbourhood explores inequality and socio-economic wellbeing.

“As a short term fix, Urban Initiatives seems to do a better job than other security companies, without guns. They employ past offenders that would otherwise find it very difficult to earn an income.”

He added, however, that the project’s success is based on inequality.

“In essence, it’s the have-nots protecting the haves [the car owners] from the have-nots. The wound is still there. Violence will rise. Collective wellbeing will sink, even for the rich, until there is a collective movement towards greater equality.”

Public support

While working on the 51st floor of Ponte – the once-notorious cylindrical skyscraper of apartments overlooking the intersection – local resident Frank Leya said he used to witness the regular onslaught of “smash and grabs” happening.

“But ever since those guys came, we see them walk through traffic to make sure there isn’t any smash and grabs,” he said. 

“Workers walking through Yeoville used to get mugged by that intersection but a lot of that is not happening any more. You can even drive with your windows down when it’s hot, you know? 

“They’ve made the biggest difference. And they’re still there late at night when community members walk to and from the taxis. The problem is we don’t have a lot of them so there’s only so much they can do.

“I can only imagine some of the threats they must get from the criminals. I think they’re very brave.”

Sometimes I think about looking for another job but I can't leave here, I need to keep it safe.

by Bennett Ranthoka, safety warden

On duty, safety warden Bennett Ranthoka’s chest puffs out as he fans his hand along Joe Slovo Drive.

“People come with toy guns, with real guns, I don’t care,” he said. “I chase them away.” 

He talks about the difference they’ve made at the intersection and then sighs. 

“Sometimes I think about looking for another job but I can’t leave here, I need to keep it safe.”

Beside him, a woman carrying a baby on her back waits at the traffic light. 

He gestures towards them. 

“You see, they’re safe. I’m here so they’re safe.”

Source: Al Jazeera