WATCH | Hearts, minds at the centre of military's strategy in Alexandra

17 May 2020 - 00:00 By GRAEME HOSKEN
A member of the South African National Defence Force on patrol in Alexandra township, Johannesburg, ushers a curfew-breaker home this week.
A member of the South African National Defence Force on patrol in Alexandra township, Johannesburg, ushers a curfew-breaker home this week.
Image: Alaister Russell

It’s 6.30pm on Wednesday and the streets of Alexandra township are teeming with people as taxis drop off commuters, last-minute shoppers rush home and mothers try to get their children inside their shacks.

By 8pm, it is as though someone has flipped a switch. The streets are deserted.

It’s the start of the second week of the national night curfew, which thousands of soldiers are tasked to help police under the Covid-19 lockdown.

The army has seemingly learnt hard lessons from the first weeks of the lockdown when heavy-handed enforcement by soldiers enraged many citizens. In one incident, Alexandra resident Collins Khosa was beaten to death.

“It’s about winning hearts and minds,” said Brig-Gen Doibi Coetzee, commander of the defence force’s lockdown operations in Gauteng, shortly before military vehicles started rolling into Alexandra on Wednesday evening.

“It is crucial that we do everything we can to contain [Covid-19] and prevent it from spreading from here and other similar areas,” Coetzee said.

Residents carry a drum full of homemade beer confiscated by the police in Alexandra during a patrol with troops and community leaders.
Residents carry a drum full of homemade beer confiscated by the police in Alexandra during a patrol with troops and community leaders.
Image: Alaister Russell

“Key to that is not force, but education. Like with all of Gauteng’s informal settlements and poverty, it’s no easy task. You open your bedroom door and you are in the street. Here a street is a person’s backyard. To arrest them for being on the street is harsh.”

He said he feared a criminal record for such a violation would harm a person’s chances of finding work once the lockdown was over. The new defence force strategy was one of the main talking points among community leaders on Wednesday night as they prepared to accompany the soldiers on patrol.

These leaders play an essential part in the operation, acting as guides and liaisons for the soldiers in the township’s maze of alleys.

Coetzee said Alexandra was where “policy meets reality”.

“There are 15.4-million people living in Gauteng, 8.5-million of them vulnerable.

“With food distribution insufficient, community leaders are our eyes, not only for violations, but for where the need is dire.”

Members of the SA Defence Force (SANDF) were deployed across the country on March 27 2020. Soldiers took to the streets to help enforce lockdown regulations in a bid to curb the spread of the coronavirus. We take a look at a night on duty with the SANDF.

As Wednesday night’s patrol moved out in armoured vehicles, the streets were eerily quiet.

When the vehicles stopped, radios crackled. A drone, piloted by an army captain from a nearby position, hovered overhead, its night-vision cameras scanning for any people still out on the streets after 8pm.

The soldiers split into smaller groups, walking along parallel streets, so anyone trying to dodge a patrol in one alley would get caught in the next one.

Moments after the foot patrol began, a teenage boy called to a passing soldier from his shack.

He spoke to the community leaders, who quickly located a nearby shack where people had gathered to drink.

Soldiers escorted the community leaders as they knocked on the door. Music blared from inside. The door opened and the soldiers moved in, confiscating alcohol. The community leaders admonished those inside and police officers threatened to arrest them if they did not go home.

Members of a curfew enforcement patrol search a vehicle they stopped in Alexandra. Soldiers, police and community leaders are taking part in the operation.
Members of a curfew enforcement patrol search a vehicle they stopped in Alexandra. Soldiers, police and community leaders are taking part in the operation.
Image: Alaister Russell

“In the beginning of the lockdown, there were lots of such places,” said one of the community leaders, Simon Sekhitla.

“At night people were all over partying. The people did not like the army here. They did not trust them and would not listen.” He said it had taken nearly two months to educate people about why the lockdown was important and why the army was there.

“Unfortunately, you still find some people like these, who think it’s OK to socialise.”

For hours afterwards nothing moved on the streets, until suddenly at 11.30pm a car raced along 2nd Avenue.

Soldiers stopped the car; inside were the frantic parents of a two-year-old girl, on their way to a clinic. The mother, Catharine Dlomo, held the crying toddler in her lap as she spoke. “My baby is vomiting. She is sick, we need help. We need to get to the clinic. Please can you help?”

Residents carry a drum full of homemade beer confiscated by the police in Alexandra during a patrol with troops and community leaders.
Residents carry a drum full of homemade beer confiscated by the police in Alexandra during a patrol with troops and community leaders.
Image: Alaister Russell

The soldiers immediately alerted other patrols in the area and offered to escort the family. Shortly afterwards another drinking party was discovered when a grandmother alerted the soldiers, who helped police arrest seven people.

Sekhitla said it was clear many residents were tired of the law-breakers.

“Because of the overcrowding it’s difficult to live here, but people understand the dangers. They are calling soldiers for help because they want to be safe.”

Sara Dlamini, 73, said she was tired of the “troublemakers”.

“They will get the virus but it’s the old people who die. I am glad the soldiers are here. They and the police must arrest these tsotsis.”

One of the infantry soldiers, Capt Tshepo Mokoka, said relations with civilians had improved immensely. “They understand why we are here and that we are not the enemy.”


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