City says violence prevention efforts working, but activists sceptical

| Fergus Turner and GroundUp Staff
A VPUU pathway and ‘light box’ in Khayelitsha. Photo by Fergus Turner.

In 2006, to tackle crime in Khayelitsha, the City of Cape Town launched the Violence Prevention through Urban Upgrading (VPUU) project.

The project is a collaboration with the German Development Bank, the provincial government and the Khayelitsha Development Forum. Besides tackling crime, one of the other aims of the project is to upgrade the township’s infrastructure.

There are four VPUU improvement areas in Khayeltisha’s sections: Harare, Kuyasa, Site C, and Site B. Essentially, a VPUU area consists of well lit pathways surrounded by things that attract lots of people, like parks for example. Dotted along the pathways are, in the jargon of VPUU, ‘light boxes’. This is typically a secure two or three story lit building, with lots of activity. At least one light box should be visible anywhere along a VPUU path. If someone feels threatened while walking on a path, she should be able to get to a ‘light box’ and feel safe. For example, Harare Square is a hub with shops, businesses and a youth hall (see photo). The City has invested R120 million into the Harare VPUU.

Are the VPUU sites making a significant difference to crime? City officials believe it is. Activists based in Khayelitsha welcome aspects of the project but believe the City cannot claim the project has reduced crime.

The Harare VPUU area has been in the news recently because it houses Khayelitsha’s first coffee shop, Department of Coffee, which was burgled R10,000 worth of equipment. The Department of Coffee is located in a “light box”.

A witness to the burglary of Department of Coffee, who requested not to be named, said that it had been a “large group that robbed the coffee shop and that they had taken their time inside, noisily. No one came to stop the burglary”. Despite the presence of the VPUU project’s safety and crime initiative, the managers say that crime is still frequent in the area. A nearby cosmetics business was burgled a week later. Another resident complained that “security is not good here”. He further said that “the hired security don’t patrol well, they don’t check the businesses, just walk and drive through the area”. According to the local businesses, the VPUU site has been offered increased security with dogs at night, in response to the recent incidents.

Michael Krause is the enthusiastic and clearly dedicated VPUU team leader. He explains, “VPUU’s main goal is to improve the quality of life for residents in townships by providing area-based approaches that improve the quality of an entire neighborhood.

“We have had good progress in Harare. A lot of residents have much better access to public facilities such as the Harare Urban Park, the Harare library (the busiest library in Cape Town), the recently opened hub that provides space for local businesses. 50% of residents say they feel safer now than they did a year ago. That is significant. People have access to legal aid, NGOs, and social services. It is about addressing exclusion.”

Krause cautions, “VPUU is not a quick fix and this often runs against the drive for output and simplification of complex systems. The debate of quality versus quantity is a challenge.”

He continues, “We started in Hanover Park and Nyanga/Gugulethu. In the next phase we will be going to two municipalities in the Western Cape. On a national level the ideas are in the process of being discussed with the Nelson Mandela Metro. Closer to home the Kuyasa transport interchange is the next project we are busy with. A state of the art library will be built there along with upgrades of the Solomon Mahlangu Hall. “In Harare we want to develop a financially sustainable model that suits residents, City government, business, and civic organizations. In Kuyasa we want to provide public services that residents can feel proud of. We want these projects to have a lasting effect.”

Gavin Silber is the Deputy General-Secretary of the Social Justice Coalition which has been campaigning for better safety, street lights and sanitation in Khayelitsha. He agrees that it is important to develop infrastructure. “Lack of infrastructure such as roads, pathways, lighting are linked to the problem of violence in townships. It makes getting around safely and allowing access to emergency vehicles very difficult. The infrastructure improvements used in in VPUU pilot areas to improve safety must be incorporated into citywide urban design plans.” But, cautions Silber, “The city of Cape Town does not currently have a central inter-departmental plan to upgrade informal settlements. This means that it is currently very difficult to scale up interventions beyond the VPUU pilots to all of the city’s 220 or so informal settlements.”

The City has claimed that Khayelitsha, which has one of the highest crime rates in the country, has experienced a decline in crime of 24% since the introduction of VPUU areas. Harare, it says, has had a 33% reduction in crime. Mayor Patricia De Lille called it an example of “community led crime fighting” and cited the VPUU as evidence that the Democratic Alliance administration was not neglecting poorer areas of Cape Town, an often-made allegation by the opposition ANC.

Silber is sceptical. “It’s unclear whether Mayor de Lille is referring to total crime or a particular category. It’s generally held that most category crime rates are inaccurate because a lot of incidents go unreported. The best indicator we have for interpersonal violent crime is murder. While there has been a decrease of 16% in murder from 430 in 2006/2007 to 360 in 2011/2012, there has been a 27% increase over the past three years which is very worrying. This was one of the major reasons Premier Zille agreed to the establishment of a commission of inquiry [into policing in Khayelitsha].”

Silber also takes issue with the claim that Harare has seen a 33% reduction in crime. “The murder rate in Harare has also increased steadily over the past few years. 118 in 2009/2010, 141 in 2010/2011, and 154 in 2011/2012. VPUU is only active in pilot sites, by no means across Khayelitsha. It cannot be used to account for changes across the township. Crime has to be countered not through one but through many interventions such as policing, social development and the criminal justice system.”

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