Putting it on for the (undeserving) press

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Not so very long ago I was out visiting some farmers up country, in Limpopo, and my travels took me through a town that had experienced a very high incidence of violent crime in the early part of the past decade. I was told that, thanks to efforts of the ‘town watch’, which was connected to several satellite ‘farm watch’ groups, the crime problem was a thing of the past.

A local farmer set up a meeting with the head of the town watch for me and then, with the generosity characteristic of the region’s inhabitants, poured me a strong scotch and soda… and then another, and then about four more besides. Eventually, hours after the time we were to meet with the head of the town watch, not much shy of midnight, the farmer drove me down the avenue of macadamias between his farmhouse and the public road, and on into town.

I felt certain the head of the town watch would have turned in long before, but I was wrong. He was waiting for me at the local Engen, next to which his organisation has its operations centre.

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The gentleman in question, who I’ll call ‘Lennie’ (I’m obscuring identities because all those involved in this story were very kind and generous, and I don’t want to cause embarrassment) showed me the equipment each patrol takes out into the field – a truncheon, pepper spray, handcuffs, a torch and a camera.

Then he showed me a large wall map of the town, with cotton and thumbtack demarcations of patrol routes and crime hot spots. Next, I was instructed in the arts of radio communication. It had many of the show-and-tell elements of a school outing, and I couldn’t help but wonder whether this was the formality in which Lennie had had to cloak his low regard for my punctuality and paint-stripper breath.

We ground on politely, and well after midnight two slightly miffed-looking twentysomethings (I’d cocked up their Friday night) materialised. We all clambered into the back of Lennie’s twin cab and drove into the town’s wealthiest suburb, wryly known as Skuld Bult, or ‘Debt Hill’.

Lennie drove slowly through a park, combing it with a spotlight, while one of the youngsters explained this was where Zimbabweans often slept rough. Lennie, meanwhile, was whispering into his cellphone: “Bennie, jy kan nou bel.” (Bennie, you can call now).

Oh no, I thought, surely they haven’t organised a display for my benefit – but sure enough, a cellphone rang, a message was relayed, and Lennie stepped on the gas and put out the radio alarm: “Roofanvaal! Piet se plek!” (House robbery at Piet’s place).

Fortunately, given the state of my stomach, the scene of the phoney break-in was nearby. A towel (too neatly folded) had been arranged over the spikes of the front gate and Lennie explained that this was how the burglar had entered.

He did not venture to suggest, I noted (I was playing along, notebook open and all), why a burglar, unless also an idiot, would choose to enter directly over a gate in front of a motion-sensor light, or why someone driven to robbery could afford to ruin such a nice fluffy towel.

But, then again, there wasn’t much time for explanations. Within seconds cars came racing down all available arteries, just as if we were in a Tracker advert. One, two, three, four, five, six of them, and not just cars, but men on motorbikes, and on foot, being led by eager snuffling dogs.

Most were in their 20s and 30s, and had obviously been told to keep up appearances in no uncertain terms. What amazed me was how dutifully they did this. Usually the conspiracy of shared youth trumps most other relations, but there were no generational winks, no complicit smiles.

I confess part of me found the implication – that I was wet enough behind the ears to swallow the act whole – quite insulting. But, on balance, I found it all quite touching. If anything, Lennie had certainly demonstrated that his organisation had effectively dealt with the town’s crime problem.