Safety in Numbers

29 05 2008

By Karen Thome

I’ve always felt pretty safe in this country. Maybe it’s because I have always had the “it can’t happen to me” attitude, and so far “it” hasn’t, so why should I worry, right? Well, now I am worried. After living in South Africa for my whole life, I am finally worried. Now I can actually understand why people are willing to sacrifice the sunshine of S.A for the safety of another continent.

I was speaking to local Grahamstown inspector, Milanda Coetzee the other day, and she told me that there is a mere one policeman to every 570 people in Grahamstown. That is scary. She also informed me that when a case is reported the police investigate it for 24 hours, and if no suspect turns up, or if there’s not enough evidence, the case is put on file where it remains untouched- basically it’s scrapped. The shock doesn’t even end here though! Did you know that the police are so under- staffed that they are forced to prioritise specific crimes only if they have become a trend in a particular area. So basically, if your friend is murdered, but he is the only one for the month in his area, then his case isn’t seen as a priority, and the criminals will more than likely not be convicted. Inspector Coetzee put it in a very nice way when she said, “it’s not like Law and Order, or CSI where they spend months on a single case, and each murder is a priority, I wish it was. But it’s just not.”

The fact of the matter is that police can’t afford to value the individual. I was doing a story on a small pre- school which has been broken into seven times in fourteen months. The children of this school have had their mattresses, food, toys, tables, books, plates, spoons, oven and fridge taken from them! And guess what, not a thing has been done about it. The suspects from the first burglary were released without bail because the next court date they could get was over a year later. There’s just too much crime, and not enough court time.

I asked inspector Coetzee what she thought people could do to help the situation. She obviously was against people taking the law into their own hands, as this often gets the victim into more trouble than the criminal. She instead suggested that people report any criminal activity they are aware of so that police can see where the trends are and target the problem. But, once again, where does this leave the individual? Are people supposed to wait until their whole area is flooded with crime before any justice can take place?