Don’t rebuild facilities that communities destroy

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Read Paddy Hartdegen’s thoughts on this matter.

I think it’s high time that more and more municipalities adopted the attitude of the Bronkhorstspruit authorities who have decided not to rebuild the clinic that was torched in Rethabiseng township after angry service delivery protests in the area.

It’s not the first time that the citizens of South Africa, infuriated by one or other event, have turned on the community’s assets and destroyed them through their own personal frustrations and their vindictive nature.

Think back on places like the Pretoria Station that was set alight and destroyed a few years back.  Or the many schools and libraries that have been burned down, the town halls, municipal refuse trucks and water carriers, buses and trains that have been destroyed by acts of arson or sabotage.

These acts are all prompted by angry hordes of people, frustrated by a lack of services and responding to their frustrations by destroying the very services or assets that they use every day.

Well, the Gauteng government has now ruled that it will not spend the R3-million need to rebuild the clinic that was torched in by Rethabiseng community residents.  So now the Rethabiseng residents will have to travel, at their own cost and most probably by taxi, to the next nearest government hospital or clinic in Bronkhorstspruit.

In a separate announcement, the Passenger Rail Agency of South Africa has reacted in a similar way by refusing to repair the signals and tracks of part of the line that was destroyed between the Pretoria Station and Shoshanguve by commuters who were stuck on a train when the electricity supplies failed. A small band of commuters destroyed the signalling systems and some of the coaches.

Prasa says that it will not spend money on repairing the service: instead the community members who use that train service will now have to catch buses or taxis to the next closest working station and embark on trains there.

I think both these decisions are the correct ones.  If members of the public destroy a facility or a service then it will go unrepaired until such time as there are surplus funds in a budget to do the repair work.

Of course the consequences for thousands of other people who were not involved in the destruction are devastating because they are being “unfairly” punished because of the actions of an uncontrollable minority of people who happen to reside alongside them. But citizens of South African cannot continue to destroy assets, willy-nilly and then have them replaced with some speed and efficiency after the acts of destruction.

Much of the madness of the mob behaviour and violence is perpetrated by a small lunatic fringe of extremists hell-bent on causing mayhem.  It’s not like events in Syria or Libya where whole societies rebelled: it’s a small group of crazed individuals who carry out the destruction. And it achieves nothing. c

Most people in South Africa – in almost any community you wish to name – want to be left in peace to get on with their lives and yet in every community there remains a small, lunatic fringe cannot foresee the consequences of their actions. Or even if the do, they don’t care.

So I found it quite interesting, this week, to read a report about a community in Port Elizabeth’s Soweto-on-Sea township, which was so enraged by a gang of four cable thieves that they caught stealing copper cables that they attacked the group with pangas and other sharp objects.  One thief was killed while the other three managed to escape.

According to Captain Andre Beetge, there was growing unhappiness among residents of Soweto-on-Sea as the escalating levels of cable theft that various neighbourhoods had set up there own vigilante patrols to prevent cables from being taken.

It’s not the only incident of a community taking action to prevent thieves from operating:  In Cape Town, community intervention tipped off the municipal Metal Theft Unit (known colloquially as the Copperheads) about cable theft along the R300 near Belhar, resulting the in the arrest of three suspects who have subsequently been charged.

This follows the arrest, in early April of another five suspects in Athlone who were also trying to steal cables.  It seems that the community response is fundamental to these successes in Cape Town whereas, inland in Gauteng, the communties are taking the law into their own hands primarily because of the widespread distrust of the local police services.

Tipping-off special police units about cable thefts is the reaction one would expect to see from a responsible community; a community resorting to killing the blighters who are stealing the cables is entirely the wrong response – but one that seems to be favoured because of the breakdown of police trust among community residents.

It not the first time that cable thieves have been killed.  Not long ago a group of four thieves were trapped inside their bakkie, which was then set alight, cremating the thieves in a ghastly demonstration of community violence in Johannesburg;  some time ago a Cape Flats man was stoned to death by the community while trying to steal cables.

In Mabopane, north of Pretoria, mob justice ruled in Itsoseng after a cable thief was captured and savagely assaulted for four hours before he died.  In another incident in Mpumalanga, villagers at Siyabsa hid on street corners on the lookout for copper thieves.  When one man was spotted attempting to steal cables residents caught him and beat him to death.

These few incidents – and there are many more to be found in the pages of South Africa’s newspapers – demonstrate a shocking degree of vigilantism and lawlessness that prevails in this country and can anyone justify it?

Frankly no, because beating a cable thief to death is much worse than the crime he has committed of attempting to steal cables.  But it illustrates the degree of frustration that various communities in different parts of South Africa have over the ineffectual and useless levels of policing that are a part of our country’s culture today.  It seems this is one of the unwanted consequences of our democracy: inefficient policing and widespread vigilantism.

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Crown Publications, one of South Africa’s largest business-to-business publishing houses, came into existence in 1986. Since then, the company has grown from producing a single magazine, Electricity SA (renamed Electricity+Control), to publishing six monthly magazines, three quarterlies, and a number of engineering handbooks.