18 March 2011 – a typical day?

Friday 18 March, I drove the six blocks to my office as usual. If it seems weird that I should drive six blocks, it’s because I haven’t worked out whether I should walk those six blocks with my laptop on my back. I have never been mugged and maybe it will never happen, but there is so much of my life and work on the laptop that I’m not sure I should risk it. Besides, I often need my car to go elsewhere, so it’s convenient to have it close by. But I’m looking for solutions. Either to stop using a laptop and rather carry a portable hard drive everywhere with me or to ride my bicycle to work or perhaps even to buy a cheap Chinese scooter (R10 000) and ride a two-wheeled combustion-driven vehicle again for the first time in 16 years.

First meeting of the day: a gathering organised by the local police. The invitation was strange and seductive – we’d be meeting a senior general and then going off to a meeting with the national Minister of Police. Turns out this was a ploy to get the local Liquor Traders’ Association and us (I am, amongst other things, a member of the Yeoville Community Policing Forum – CPF) together to talk. Seems the liquor traders think we are out to undermine them and get all liquor outlets in the area shut down. After a while, it became clear that there was some common ground, but there is still suspicion. Our call for a moratorium on on the awarding of NEW liquor licenses while efforts are made to shut down illegal establishments and to get legal outlets to comply with the terms and conditions of their licenses was misunderstood. One of the main things we were calling for was self-regulation by the liquor traders themselves as a way of minimising the burden on the police and avoiding ordinary citizens from having to get into confrontations with liquor outlets.

At the meeting was a guest house owner who believes I have a vendetta against him and that I want to shut him down. I do have a problem with him – three problems, actually. He sells to the public when he is only supposed to sell to his guests, the road and pavements around his premises (which is in a residential area) is blocked by the cars of his customers, and he (or his staff) dump their rubbish on the uncut grass of the pavement alongside his property. To his credit, his place doesn’t make a lot of noise, though there was an occasion when I was called by a nearby resident to say that there were young women screaming and running down the street from his place.

He reacted very aggressively to me in the meeting, using language that eventually forced the police officer chairing the meeting to discipline him. Later on, two of my fellow members of the Policing Forum took up his invitation for them to go and see his place and his license for themselves. It is indeed a private hotel license, allowing only sales to his residential guests.

He asked them to pass a message on to me and stressed that it should not be ‘edited’. His message: if any ‘agents’ of the state come and try and shut his place down, he will ‘shut me down’. Their interpretation: my life, limbs and/or property could be in danger.

Back at the office, trying to catch up with admin, I got a call from the principal of a local school. Seems the school was broken into a week ago, and her computer and flat screen TV were stolen. The main computer room was also targetted, but the machines were all joined with a Kensington cable which they could not cut. The thieves made do with odds and ends, including 28 blue stackable plastic chairs.

The reasons she called was to ask me to take pictures and run a story in Yeovue News, a small community newspaper we publish. She also mentioned that a parent had advised her that someone was seen selling the chairs at the local market, two blocks down the road.

We (the chairperson and deputy chairperson of the Policing Forum and myself) went to the market and managed to find four of the chairs. The new owners admitted (reluctantly in the case of one fellow) that they had bought the chairs from someone who came offering them to stall holders. They said they didn’t know it were stolen property and they didn’t know the person selling the chairs. We called the principal who called the police who came around and confiscated the chairs, threatening to charge the chair ‘owners’ with possession of stolen property. We advised the market manager to speak to the stall holders and encourage them to be more circumspect about who they buy from. Sad thing is: the children of some of the stall holders are pupils at that school.

I needed to be at the market anyway because we were meeting with the Department of Economic Development of the City of Joburg to discuss the thorny problem of informal trading. There is an imminent threat of confrontation between, on the one hand, people trading in the market (slightly off the beaten track) and paying rent, and, on the other hand, street traders who have better locations and pay no rent for their ‘hijacked’ public space. The street traders operate despite the fact that such trading is officially prohibited throughout the Yeoville Bellevue area, an unenforced and possibly unenforceable restriction.

I had proposed the establishment of a task team comprising market traders, street traders, formal businesses, property owners, community representatives, and various departments of the City of Johannesburg. This task team would attempt to come up with a solution which would be broadly acceptable to all stakeholders and should be enforceable, especially if everyone committed to being part of a programme of self-regulation. In other words, all stakeholders and roleplayers would enter into a binding social contract on the matter.

We were meeting for a series of site visits to a number of places suggested by different stakeholders as possible new market sites from which the street traders could operate. No decisions were to be taken – just impressions gained for discussion at a future meeting.

There was much tension. People’s livelihoods are at stake, their freedom threatened in the case of street traders who face having their goods confiscated and possible arrest in random raids by the Metro Police. Market traders say they cannot afford their rent. The City of Joburg wants order, the community wants clean pavements space to walk and .

Our visit to one site was not helped by the arrival of a very drunk and aggressive pseudo Rastafarian who is part of a dissident community group that takes pleasure in disrupting whatever development efforts are undertaken in the area unless they have a direct (economic) interest in it. He stubbornly refused to allow us to continue our inspection, forcing me to call the deputy chair of the Policing Forum to remove him. He came and was assisted by a group of South African Police Service (SAPS) and Johannesburg Metropolitan Police Department (JMPD) officials who swept down a nearby street in great and unexpected numbers on some sort of operation. Our drunken Rastaman was firmly removed but kept making efforts to return, yelling and swearing and making the City of Joburg officials very nervous. A police officer slapped the ground in front of him with a sjambok (a long rubber whip) to drive him away.

We got back into my microbus to move to another site. As we drove off, thankfully leaving behind the now impotent dreadlocked drunk, a shot was fired and we saw four or five police officers head up the street in pursuit of someone or something. We left in a hurry, concluding our site visit with a frustrating dialogue which raised fears (for me) that the whole process might result in a rushed solution which could potentially cause more problems than it will solve.

As I drove back to the office (alone now), I received notification that there were people wanting to use the sportsground. As I carry the keys to the sportsground until we have a management system in place, I turned back. At the gate, I found the team waiting, But in the field were a number of young kids. They had squeezed in through the bars of the fence and were about to play. I gathered them together and (sternly) advised them to stop invading the field and to rather make arrangements with the school’s soccer teacher for regular access. I appointed one of them to take responsibility for doing this.

Shortly after I arrived back at the office, the man who had previously objected to our site meeting in the street rushed up the stairs yelling frantically. It’s hard to know for sure what his intentions were, but I was rather pleased that the deputy chairperson of the Policing Forum was near the door and he grabbed him and moved him out quickly, joined by the chairperson who was in the adjoining office. It was all very dramatic. The man broke free and threw himself backwards onto the floor, shouting wildly. They got him off the floor and down the stairs with some difficulty. Turns out the police didn’t just sjambok the ground in front of him. They also struck him on his upper arm and it was this was drove him to invade the office, clearly believing that I was the one to blame for the fact that he had a painful weal on his arm.

Am I going to need a bodyguard, I wonder?

I finally left the office and stopped off at the supermarket to buy beans and eggs which we give to the first 30 people who assemble at the gate of our home at 7am on a Saturday morning. In the parking lot, as I was about to leave, a fellow Policing Forum member stopped to speak to me. While we were talking, Priscilla, one of the women who collects food on Saturday mornings, came quickly to see me, a young women with a baby on her back in tow. The mother of the child looked about 16, though she said she was 22. She was neatly dressed and carrying a single zipped plastic suitcase. Her name was Ameena (I think). The story was that she had come from Zimbabwe 6 or 7 days ago in search of her brother who had called her to come, promsing her a job. She said she had tried calling her brother and only got voicemail. She said she had been sleeping in trhe police station each night. This wasn’t quite accurate. I called another Policing Forum member who is also a Victim Empowerment Centre volunteer and she said she knew Ameena, that she had indeed spent her days at the police station, but that at night she had been sleeping in the flat nearby of someone she knew. My colleague had been trying to find a shelter to take her in and was intending to continue the search on Monday. Ameena eventually went off with Priscilla, herself a Zimbabwean, to see if the owner of the flat was there. I later got a call from Priscilla to say they couldn’t find her. I promised to check with the shelter next door to my house and Priscilla would in the meantime try to get her ‘landlady’ to allow her to take Ameena in for the night.

I later heard that the woman with whom Ameena had been staying – a white Afrikaans woman who had been married to a Congolese man – had probably been thrown out of her flat because she could not pay the rent. This may explain why she was not there and why Ameena was approaching people for a place to stay, though she was not doing it in a very transparent manner. There could also be another reason for Ameena’s reluctance to go back to the flat. Priscilla said that she got the impression that much of the building was occupied by sex workers.

I had one more chore. While I was in the parking lot, I received a call from a visually-impaired acquaintance (an aspirant local councillor) who wanted me to take his daughter to a school play. I wasn’t able to, but I arranged to fetch him and his daughter and then get someone else to drive them to the school in my car.

When finally I got home, I poured a glass of red wine and set about icing two cakes for my daughter, one to celebrate the final show of the school play, and the other to celebrate her birthday. Later, I delivered the cakes to her mother’s house, where there was a party in full swing. My daughter formally introduced us (her mother and I) to her boyfriend. Seemed a good kid. I liked his dress style. He had on a sort of exaggerated formal collar and bowtie shirt, together wth a pair of lime green shorts and shoes/leggings I cannot describe.

We took my colleague’s daughter back home, cooked the eggs for the next morning’s hand-out – and went to bed.

It was a normal day.

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