Cop ghost squad to 'clean up' city streets

12 February 2015 - 02:36 By Penwell Dlamini and Graeme Hosken
Shoppers and hawkers congregate outside a Shoprite store in Rosettenville, Johannesburg. The retailer has announced that it will prioritise job creation in the coming year
Shoppers and hawkers congregate outside a Shoprite store in Rosettenville, Johannesburg. The retailer has announced that it will prioritise job creation in the coming year

Police in unmarked cars are going to "clean up" Johannesburg, evicting beggars, traders and pamphlet distributors from traffic intersections throughout the metro.

And in the near future motorists giving money to beggars or hawkers at intersections could fall foul of the law and be fined.

Johannesburg yesterday launched Operation Ke Molao(It is the law), which involves uniformed metro police in unmarked vehicles being deployed across the city to fight crime.

They will first target the 10 most notorious crime locations on the roads, which they have refused to identify.

Sello Lemao, a member of the mayoral committee for community safety, said there had been a sharp increase in illegal activities at road intersections over the past few months. These included smash-and-grab attacks, unsolicited windscreen washing, illegal trading and begging.

"These activities are not only illegal according to both national traffic and criminal legislation, but also in respect of city by-laws.

"The continued and unchecked prevalence of these activities has turned our motorists into sitting targets for theft, assault, robbery and harassment," Lemao said.

Johannesburg is not the first city to implement police "ghost squads" to fight lawlessness.

Ahead of the UN climate change conference in Durban, in December 2011, metro police cleared beggars and the homeless from the streets. They were "detained" for the duration of the conference.

Other cities have units in their metro police departments that specialise in clearing "undesirable elements" from the streets but they are focused on traffic management and by-law enforcement.

Tshwane tried using a "ghost unit" to fight crime in the CBD but the innovation backfired and the unit was disbanded.

Tshwane spokesman Blessing Manale said people complained that they were unable to establish whether the officers were legitimate or bogus.

In Cape Town, a specialist unit operating in unmarked vehicles was created to reduce road deaths and clamp down on serious traffic violations such as reckless and negligent driving, and drunken driving.

Such unmarked vehicles are custom-fitted with a siren, public address system and blue lights.

Johan Burger, a policing specialist at the Institute for Security Studies, said such initiatives should be considered holistically.

"It's no use just following a law-enforcement strategy and removing people from the streets. You have to provide alternatives in terms of job creation and welfare systems.

"It's about using various government departments to address various social ills," Burger said.

David Cote, who is a strategy co-ordinator for Lawyers for Human Rights, said the Johannesburg operation was "problematic''.

"Simply to remove people from where they are without a proper plan of what you are going to do with them is not the best option," said Cote.

He said the key question was whether the city was able to help beggars on the streets. If not, Operation Ke Molao could be seen as "punishing people just for being poor".

Gauteng social development MEC Faith Mazibuko last year called on motorists not to give to beggars.

She said in November that by giving money to street beggars "you are sending a message that it is easy to make money without going to work".

Lemao said: "We are going to talk to our legal department about how we [can] force motorists not to promote such activities on our roads."