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South Africa: A night out with the Johannesburg cops

A policeman searches the boot of a car. Crime has increased significantly since the easing of the lockdown.

Photojournalist Shiraaz Mohamed spent a night with members of the Brixton SAPS and private security companies as they went on patrol as the sun set on Saturday 18 July. This is his account of the evening.

I have covered the lockdown since it was enforced, working in Hillbrow, Alexandra and other Johannesburg hotspots. I extensively documented how the lockdown was enforced and if people were adhering to its regulations.

As the virus continued to spread its destruction socially, economically and in every other aspect, I focused my cameras on other angles of the story.

But after the curfew was re-implemented, I decided to go and see if people were obeying the curfew. I linked up with the guys from HMA High Risk Security and together with the Brixton SAPS, SOS Security and Reaper Tactical, we hit the streets of Brixton, Fietas, Crosby, Mayfair, Auckland Park and Melville. This patrol was part of a crime prevention operation and also to enforce lockdown regulations.

We met at the Brixton SAPS a few hours before curfew started. We drove in convoy around Brixton. The first stop, a house that security personnel said was notorious for selling drugs and alcohol.

I was in the second vehicle of the convoy when suddenly the lead vehicle stopped. People standing outside the house saw the convoy and ran off into the yard. Doors flew open, the police rushed into the yard and I followed suit. Worried that the light was not going to be sufficient to capture any images, I waited for the guys behind me to provide light from their torches.

But my concern changed when I realised how many people were in the yard. One could be carrying the virus. I felt uncomfortable and moved away, keeping a safe distance while still able to capture my images.

People complied with instructions and lined up against a wall whilst being searched. Except for a few broken bottlenecks, empty alcohol bottles and the strong odour of dagga in the air, there was nothing. Everyone from the convoy sanitised their hands and off we went.

The next stop was some sort of compound. A large yard cramped with many rooms. Outside, on the street, people stood around a fire while homeless people slept on pavements. A visibly drunk man wearing a mask and Superman pyjamas stood on the side of the road and spread his hands in the air as he waited to be searched. The police ignored him and went straight to the rooms in the compound where they started searching. Finding nothing, they returned to their van.

We then made our way to Auckland Park where we spotted a white BMW in the road. The cops and members of the security companies tactfully blocked in the car. The occupants of the car were searched and were told to proceed a short while later.

Faiz Mahomed (no relation), owner of HMA High Risk Security, explained to me that during Level 5 and Level 4 of the lockdown there had been a significant decrease in crime.  That changed when we went to Level 3: “There has been a spike in crime.”

We get a call and race towards Melville in search of a white Corolla following cars home. I sit in the passenger seat, adrenaline pumping, wondering if Mahomed would lose control of the vehicle on a bend. We find two Corollas. The first is an Uber and the driver is in such a state of shock he can hardly speak. The second is also an Uber and we continue on our way after searching his car and verifying his details.

The rest of the evening was spent conducting stop and searches as the police searched for weapons and contraband. The curfew had kicked in and the streets were desolate except for a few cars. I was surprised that people were obeying the curfew.

There were no incidents that evening except for a few run-ins with drunks and, to my amusement, a couple caught seated on the back seat of their car. The woman’s head was on her partner’s lap but they seemed unfazed as they got out of the car, apologised and went into their yard. Strange that they were in their car, metres from their house.

As I drove home I thought of these words by Imtiaz Mahomed:

“The work that we are doing puts us to risk every day. We sanitise, we wear PPE, but the problem is when we come into physical contact with suspects daily. Some will physically fight you, while others spit on you. By searching them you are forced to break social distancing. If you adhere to social distancing you put your life at risk. But it is all worth it. I love my job…” DM

click on the pictures for the gallery