Keeping an eagle eye on community security

The Underberg/Himeville Community Watch keeps a tight grip on crime in the Kwa Sani district in KZN. John Pearce, CEO and district security co-ordinator of the community watch, speaks to Robyn Joubert

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The Underberg/Himeville Community Watch keeps a tight grip on crime in the Kwa Sani district in KZN. John Pearce, CEO and district security co-ordinator of the community watch, speaks to Robyn Joubert.

What is the function of the watch?
Our primary function is to ensure that complaints are attended to. When people have a problem, they phone in and we follow it up by contacting the relevant agency, for example the police, a mountain rescue team, the Southern Berg Fire Protection Association, the transport department, or Telkom or Eskom.

We operate 24 hours a day. We do not provide any response service but co-ordinate with response agencies and ensure things are done as quickly as possible in an emergency.

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We are the co-ordination centre for incidents related to fires, motor vehicle accidents, snow, stock theft and crime, as well as for problems with Telkom and Eskom.

What area does the community watch cover?
It covers an area of about 6 000km2, which includes Underberg, Himeville, Bulwer, Bushman’s Nek and Loteni, as well as the Southern Drakensberg mountains and the 110km border with Lesotho.

How is it financed?
The Kwa Sani municipality contributes R60 000/month and Himeville and Underberg farmers contribute from R250 to R650/month depending on the scale of their operation.

We have a number of smallholders who contribute between R110 and R150/month although we would like to see more of them contributing.

Your radio network is the hub of activity.Tell us about it.
Our primary tool is radio communication, with the main element being a farmers’ network of 550 operational radios. We have access to the police radio network, as well as the radio networks of KZN Wildlife, Sappi and Mondi.

We have our own VHF radio repeater channel to co-ordinate local traffic and fire services, as well as a direct link to the KZN provincial emergency services. A licensed airband radio allows us to communicate with any aircraft, whether it’s an SA Air Force, army, private or commercial plane.

We have a staff member who’s a licensed amateur radio operator. This provides global emergency communications through the hamnet radio network. We control the Southern Berg Fire Protection Association, as well as Working on Fire, from here.

What other functions are performed by this communication hub?
A weather station transmits data to Firestop, the KZN Fire Protection Association. We also have a data voice recorder which records all telephone and radio traffic. It is a legal requirement for a disaster management centre.

What are the key points that make this community watch work?
We’ve gained the respect of the community because of our commitment, careful budgeting, affordability and reliability. It’s a little like being a dedicated policeman, but the hours are longer.

I’ve lived here since 1966 and have been involved in district security for many years, as both a police reservist and a Commando member. I know the area and the people know me.

What are the main problems experienced?
On farms, it’s mainly stock theft and theft of items such as chainsaws, diesel and tools. In villages it’s mainly housebreaking. In rural communities it is stock theft, theft, rape and fire.

What was the impact when the commandos were discontinued in the district six years ago?
It had a definite impact – we were deprived of rural safety. The police haven’t filled the void.

The SA National Defence Force was withdrawn from border duty before the closure of the commandos. The result is a large increase in cross-border stock theft and little to no border control.

The police claim stock theft in South Africa is down 14%. What is your experience?
Stock theft is increasing. In May 2011 alone, we had 175 cattle stolen cross-border. Total stock stolen between January and August 2011 was 469 cattle, 138 sheep and 25 horses. For the whole of last year, we lost 441 cattle, 75 sheep and 34 horses, and in 2009 it was 263 cattle and 106 sheep. There is no control.

We have 12 border police in Himeville to cover a huge area. It is an impossible task, as they are not equipped to work in this terrain. We need to get the army back here.

What help do you get from KZN Wildlife field rangers?
The field rangers help us enormously and try to pick up tracks of stolen stock. But they are shortstaffed and don’t get paid overtime. It takes a good six hours for rangers to get to the base of mountain passes – but their working day is eight hours.

How efficient is the local stock theft unit?
Our local Bushman’s Nek Stock Theft Unit has six members to cover eight police districts and they are run off their feet. We rely on farmers and their labour force to recover stock and do follow-ups. Arrests are very seldom made for stock theft.

About 40% of livestock is recovered and we wouldn’t be anywhere near that figure if the community and KZN Wildlife didn’t get involved. Farmers are alert and when fences are cut, they notify us immediately and we broadcast it on the radio so everyone is aware of what is going on.

How often do you meet with the police?
We have weekly meetings with the Himeville police to go through the crime statistics so we can pick up new trends and warn the community. We are no longer informed about crime statistics from other police stations.

Has the presence of the community watch reduced crime in the district?
Serious crime such as farm attacks are not really an issue. It is a safe area and we like to think the community watch has helped by organising quick response through the security cells. We have 20 district security cells run by farmers. If we have a farm attack or something equally serious, the cells get involved and we control the response by radio from the community watch. It is an immediate response in an emergency until the police arrive on scene.

What is your message to farmers regarding participation in security cells?
The district served by the community watch has 20 farmeroperated security cells, of which only five are permanently active.
Farmers are told regularly that the police can’t protect them, so safety and security falls on our shoulders.

Contact the Underberg/Himeville Community Watch on 033 702 1143 or email [email protected].

John Pearce at the nerve centre of the community watch.