The Civilian Response to Crime and Chaos

Gideon Joubert

The following article is based on a speech delivered by Gideon Joubert, Head of Security Projects at Sakeliga during the 2023 Summit for stronger business chambers and organisations.

South Africa has among the largest and fastest-growing organised criminal sectors in the world. According to the latest Global Organized Crime Index report, South Africa places 7th worldwide regarding the overall levels of organised crime in the country. This represents a significant deterioration from 2021, when we were in 19th place globally – which is still horrendously bad, but at least outside the Top 10 where we presently are.

The South African criminal industry manifests as various gangs, mafias, syndicates, and cartels. They concern themselves with a wide variety of criminal activities – some highly specialised – such as human trafficking, CIT heists, drug trafficking, racketeering, extortion, illegal mining, copper theft, vehicle and truck hijacking, taxi warfare, house and business robbery, et cetera.

The organised criminal economy is highly sophisticated and pervasive, having penetrated deep into social, political, private and government structures and institutions. The primary aim of organised criminal groups is to parasitically extract value from the formal economy through the threat and perpetration of violence.

It also renders comprehensive support to itself, with numerous forward and backward linkages between the various suppliers and demanders of illicit goods and services – sometimes with fierce competition among them. In this space, the organised criminal industry enforces its own norms, contracts, treaties, and “laws” via ruthless and targeted violence against transgressors.

The cruel irony of this is that while the SAPS and NPA together manage very poor conviction rates – 15% for murder, 8% for rape, and less than 3% for trio crimes – the players in SA’s organised crime industry are very effective at ensuring consequences for those who transgress against them.

In summary, the criminal underworld has succeeded in creating a decentralised parallel state with all the relevant organs one would expect from such a construct. It is also very effective at pursuing its goals. Of great concern here is the degree to which the South African state and its organs have been captured and infiltrated by organised criminal groups.

Reports of uniformed SAPS members working for criminal syndicates (even while on duty and in official police vehicles) are not uncommon – and in reality, likely occur far more often than we are even aware of. In some cases, entire police stations are on Zama-Zama payrolls, with officers not merely turning a blind eye to criminal activities but going so far as to providing armed escorts for cartel members, or acting as hitmen for them[1].

Regardless of how large or powerful organised criminal groups are, they are not powerful enough to withstand the concentrated authority of the state. If the government committed itself to a systematic and targeted dismantling of these groups, it would outright destroy them. There are many examples of success in this regard, even in South Africa, but the most remarkable contemporary illustration is that of El Salvador.

El Salvador’s homicide rate peaked in 2015 with 103 murders per 100 000 inhabitants, and it continued its domination as the world’s most murderous nation with 50 murders per 100 000 population in 2018. These figures exceed civilian death rates in contemporary active war zones.

After obtaining office on 1 June 2019, President Nayib Bukele announced a strategic and targeted crackdown on El Salvador’s gangs via combined police and military operations. Over the course of the next three years, more than 72 000 gang members were arrested and incarcerated.

During the same period El Salvador’s homicide rate progressively fell from 50 murders per 100 000 in 2019, to 19.7 in 2021, to 7.8 in 2022 – lower than that of the United States.

This incredible turnaround of violent crime and murder rates in El Salvador represents what is realistically achievable if a government has the required will and motivation to address the problem at its origin, and then directs and coordinates its security resources towards the achievement thereof.

However, if the required will is absent from government, this will not occur. Especially so if the government is heavily compromised by organised criminal elements.

The existence and expansion of the South African Mafia State will hold significant political implications – many of which are already manifesting. There is a notable transfer of resources (capital equipment, intelligence, and human resources) from the state to organised criminal groups, examples of which regularly appear in the media.

This transfer of resources represents perhaps the most significant threat to public safety and national security we presently face.

Hence there exists a large criminal underworld which is armed and equipped by the state via corruption and criminality within the SAPS and SANDF, possesses specialised skills in the form of policemen and soldiers working for criminal syndicates, which has extensive cross-border capabilities, and which enjoys extraordinary political protection[2][3].

The ANC has therefore created – either deliberately or coincidentally – a powerful decentralised criminal state that operates in and dominates large sections of territory containing entire communities and is capable of operating with sufficient impunity as to deny the organs of the state free access to those areas. Thus, organised criminal groups have proven entirely capable of defying the authority of the state and the constitution with little to no meaningful repercussions, as illustrated by the growth in their activities over the past few years.

The political implications hereof, apart from drastic increases in violence and social (and economic) instability, is that even if the ANC should be voted out of national executive power in the 2024 general elections, they will still retain – through their direct connections with and involvement in the organised criminal underworld – extensive real power, albeit decentralised[4].

A dysfunctional, unfocused, and unstable central government of quarrelling opposition parties will be unlikely to address this problem with any effectiveness. And the criminal underworld will continue to carve out its fiefdoms, as well as expanding and fortifying them.

It is not, however, all doom and gloom on this front. Not in the slightest.

Civil society has also been building powerful, decentralised antidotes to this parallel state. Whenever and wherever state failure manifests, causing disruption and chaos, there are people who are constructing solutions and alternatives. We see this in the form of a myriad of groups, associations, NPCs, and organisations championing a host of local, regional, and national causes – including response to violent crime.

The expanding role and presence of community security structures and organisations – CSOs, CPFs, NWs, Farmwatches, etc. – resulted in a formidable civil response to violent crime and chaos. When civil resources are properly constituted and coordinated and they establish good working relations with the remaining reliable law enforcement authorities, they repeatedly demonstrate a high degree of effectiveness in combating crime.

Some notable examples in this regard which enjoyed significant public attention, were the broad civil responses to the July 2021 riots which manifested in communities across KZN and Gauteng. The defence of Maponya Mall by armed and organised Soweto residents, the heroic actions of the people of Howick, and the members of Botha’s Hill neighbourhood watch that combined efforts with taxi associations to protect their community’s infrastructure and assets represent but a few noteworthy cases in a much broader and very effective civilian effort.

More recently, the highly publicised intervention of the Hoedspruit Farmwatch alongside the SAPS and the Hawks is a demonstration of how such civil coordination succeeded in eliminating a dangerous and heavily armed gang of CIT robbers immediately after a heist. In these notable examples ordinary civilians took the safety and security of their communities seriously. They readily equipped themselves with the required knowledge, skills, and tools, to effectively engage gangs of dangerous criminals and completely neutralised them. Moreover, that this occurred without any losses to friendly forces is an incredibly powerful illustration of what is possible when communities organise.

However, some elaboration on civil structures is necessary.

Community Policing Forums (CPFs) exist to promote communication, cooperation, transparency, accountability between the community and their local police station. They can be immensely powerful mechanisms for keeping community policing at a high standard and ensuring good working relations between the police and the community. A good CPF can definitely enhance effectiveness of policing in its precinct. However, a CPF’s success is very much dependent on the attitude and competence of the station’s management and personnel.

Uncooperative, antagonistic, or criminally captured station commanders and police officers will severely limit the success of any CPF. Still, it is very important to have a good CPF in the absence of a good police station: it is limited in what it can achieve in the short-term against bad station management, but has an important role to play.

Neighbourhood Watches and Farm Watches were traditionally seen only as “eyes and ears” of the police. They have evolved into a more active patrolling role – they now work closely with security firms and community security initiatives, as well as law enforcement authorities. Members of NWs and FWs retain powers of citizen’s arrest as per Criminal Procedures Act 51 (Sections 42 and 47), which allows them to perform an arrest for all Schedule 1 offences committed in their presence (or reasonably suspected).

There are of course no small number of hazards and risks associated with arresting suspects. Hence, proper techniques for arrests and a thorough understanding of the application and use of force is fundamental. Equally so is the retention of less-lethal force capacity among the participants.

Private security firms have been vital in filling the policing vacuum – proactively, reactively, and preventatively. The increasing hybridisation of private security firms and community security initiatives has become commonplace. Private security firms have demonstrated capability to be highly impactful, but they need strong strategic guidance from a mandate-giving party to maximise effectiveness.

Professionalised Community Security Organisations (CSOs) represent the ultimate organisational structure of community security initiatives. It is a good hybrid system which makes use of a combination of full-time professional security officers and highly trained and qualified volunteers. The Jewish CSO, which operates in parts of Johannesburg and Cape Town, is a great working example: it provides both armed security and EMS to the community.

A CSO would normally take the form of an NPC or for-profit company, which is then registered with PSIRA and obtains SAPS accreditation. This allows it to provide security services, and for its volunteers and full-time personnel to wear uniforms and be issued with S20 firearms. The process to establish a CSO is lengthy, requires considerable admin, and is expensive. But it allows for the professionalisation of a community security volunteer system which would be otherwise impossible, manages and contains public liability risk, and creates an organisation with the bona fides and pedigree necessary to carry the public’s trust.

Regardless of which structures you are currently capable of setting up or becoming involved in, they all have a significant role to play in strengthening and coordinating the civil response to crime and chaos.

There presently exists two types of spheres within the geographic boundaries of the failing and rapidly receding South African state – which every passing day governs over less and less:

  1. One pursuing order, peace, and economic progress
  2. Another pursuing chaos, criminal predation, and violence

The spheres pursuing order currently find themselves in various types of direct and indirect, and open and covert conflict with the spheres perpetrating chaos. Thus, how the spheres of order structure and organise their defence and security is of critical importance.

Private security is effective in looking after private interests, but a chamber providing a public interest mandate to a security contractor can begin to make common areas – crucial to the functioning of the town – safer. These areas can include key freight routes, town squares/centres, high-streets, parks and so on – such publicly focused security can create safety at scale.

Sakeliga is inviting business communities (chambers of commerce, industry organisations, and businesses yet to become organised) with a desire to fix their towns, to act upon the threat and opportunity in state failure. Our invitation is to develop a coordinated and organised vision for taking control of their local economy, set up a dedicated, well-funded and professionally managed solution-engine, and plug into a network of organisations sharing strategies and know-how for scalable solutions.

Visit our Business chamber support page:

  1. To see if your community already has a business chamber within the Sakeliga support network;
  2. for more information on how to become part of the network;
  3. or to find out how you can start your own organised business group.

The gaps, or vacuums, of order and governance left by the receding state constitute both a threat and an opportunity. A threat because in their place can result chaos, disorder, and organised criminality. An opportunity because these gaps can be filled by organised groups restoring order and governance, in the public interest.

[1] Global Initiative Against Transnational Organized Crime (2022), Strategic Organized Crime Risk Assessment: South Africa. Part 2: Preying on Critical Services | Illegal Mining, p. 152.

[2] Global Initiative Against Transnational Organized Crime (2022), Strategic Organized Crime Risk Assessment: South Africa. Part 2: Selling the Illicit | Illegal Firearms, p. 47 – 51.

[3] Global Initiative Against Transnational Organized Crime (2022), Strategic Organized Crime Risk Assessment: South Africa. Part 2: Dealing in Violence | Organized Violence, p. 93 – 101.

[4] Global Initiative Against Transnational Organized Crime (2022), Risk Bulletin #25 May – June 2022, Data on assassinations shows stark reality of violence in KwaZulu-Natal.