Volunteering can contribute to building safe communities in South Africa

The impact of Community Policing Forums

By Lebina Shabe [1]

Volunteering is playing a key role in the fight against crime in South Africa. Through voluntary structures, communities in different parts of South Africa are joining hands with the police in a variety of innovative ways to support the state efforts to fight crime. These include efforts to educate the public, provide information about criminals and mobilise financial resources. In this article, VOSESA Focus explores this emerging field of volunteering.

The increasing levels of crime are a major concern for South Africans from all walks of life. The South African Police Service (SAPS) and the municipal police structures have the constitutional obligation to ensure citizens’ safety and security. However, the latest developments in crime show that without a ‘civilian contribution’, the police service is less likely to succeed in their fight against crime.

The Department of Safety and Security acknowledges the role played by communities through volunteers in crime prevention and encourages innovative forms of partnerships with the public. An example of such a partnership is the Community Policing Forum (CPF), which is based on a collaborative effort between the law-enforcement agency and volunteers from local communities to identify problems and mutually search for solutions. CPFs have been part of the crime-prevention strategy since 1993 and have had varying degrees of impact in combating social crime. As criminals ‘put more pressure’ on the police service, leading to increased demand for resources, can CPFs become one of the major actors in the fight against crime?

Communities and individual citizens are the ‘first line of defence’ in combating crime. In most cases, the perpetrators of crime live and operate in the locality. Reporting crime after it has happened means that the police are reacting to the symptoms rather than the root cause. In contrast, the pro-active role that volunteers play through CPFs makes it possible for the police to locate and apprehend criminals through their close interaction with the community. Empowering communities through training and logistic support to perform this role is therefore imperative for the success of this programme.

The legislative and institutional framework

Community policing forums (CPFs) as statutory bodies are provided for in section 221(2) of the Interim Constitution , and in section 19(1) of the South African Police Services (SAPS) Act 68 of 1995. According to the White Paper on Safety and Security (1998), CPFs should be an integral part of the crime-prevention strategy of local authorities. Creating CPFs without the necessary support, however, is unlikely to bring about the desired goals. Rather, it could lead to apathy and drop-out among citizens, as communities start to feel helpless and unable to perform their civilian oversight within the police service.

The government has, on numerous occasions, voiced its support for CPFs. In his State of the Nation address at the Opening of Parliament on 25 June 1999, President Thabo Mbeki stated that the government would take measures to ‘strengthen the Community Police Forums to improve their capacity to mobilise the people against crime and to improve co-operation between the people and the law-enforcement agencies’.


CPFs [2] were established across the country after the first democratic elections in 1994. Nevertheless, reports show that some police stations no longer have functional structures, which means that the link between communities and the police has been cut, leading to poor channels of communication and ineffective information sharing. Maintaining an active membership within these voluntary structures is a challenge that police stations and local authorities must overcome in order to make a difference in crime prevention, and to establish positive relationships between the police and the public.

South Africa’s background, which historically was characterised by the state machinery – including the police – being used against the people, has created mistrust between the police and the civilian population. Conflict is likely to emanate from such a relationship, and the police may not fully accept the civilian oversight of the CPF, making it difficult to shift from a client-focused approach to a ‘partnership of equals’. Changing to participatory policing is bound to be a major challenge for certain police stations.

Crime is a ‘joined-up problem’ that calls for a ‘joined-up intervention’. Without proper co-ordination and ‘buy in’ from role-players in both the public and private sectors, the efforts of the CPFs may not bear fruit.

Creating support mechanisms

CPF volunteers are well placed to engage their communities to rally behind national and local crime-prevention efforts. Working closely with the police service, CPFs can educate and motivate other community members to help en sure that criminals are exposed and that justice is done. Good CPFs act as the ‘eyes and ears’ of the police. This function includes providing information to police officers, and carrying out ‘civilian oversight’ on police performance.

Apart from CPFs, non-governmental role players involved in crime prevention include City Improvement Districts, Business Against Crime, private security companies, ratepayers' associations, and others. Working in partnership with such entities can help CPFs gain ground in mobilising communities to take an active role through their voluntary efforts in combating crime. Apart from conducting ‘joint operations’, CPFs can also seek material assistance from such institutions.

CPFs should not be seen as an ‘add-on’ to the police service. Rather, there should be systematic and honest collaboration with the police internal structures to accommodate these bodies. Parkview police station commissioner, Superintendent Nanda Moodley, believes that CPFs should be given the attention and respect they deserve. He attributes the success of the Parkview CPF to the interactive relationship between the police and the CPF. ‘The CPF deals directly with my office. If we have to discuss anything, be it concerns about staff or identifying hotspots in the area, it is done through my office. In our meetings, CPF members feel free to provide constructive criticism’.[3] It is through this relationship that the station has been able to identify and address certain shortcomings within the police service.

The Parkview CPF has established a section 21 company to manage its affairs. The residents and businesses in the area make monthly financial contributions and through this initiative, more than R1-million has been made available to build the client-service centre at the station. A portion of the money was also used to buy furniture for the police station.

Parkview CPF has also established links with other community volunteer bodies working in the area of crime prevention. These include neighbourhood watches, in which residents carry out patrols of a particular suburb. The CPF and the police conduct ad hoc joint operations with this unit.

Parkview police station also has an active victim-support unit. Five volunteers who render support to victims of crime in the area can be called in at any time during the day or night to support victims of hijacking, rape, murder and robberies.

Although Superintendent Moodley acknowledges the success of the CPF at his station, he notes that all types of additional support from the community would be welcome. ‘Retired people could come to the police station to volunteer a few hours of their time every month to assist in administrative tasks such as typing and answering the phone, and where possible, even to fix police cars.’

Parkview CPF represents a community-police partnership in a wealthy area with committed material support and organisational structure. But can CPFs in less affluent areas reach the same level of success? In Superintendent Moodley’s view, poverty presents a serious challenge. However, volunteering one’s time by engaging in patrols and informing the police about criminal activities, for example, to help create safe and secure neighbourhoods, can be done by anyone, rich or poor.

Establishing a sound relationship between communities and the police is a key element for an effective crime-fighting strategy. Community policing can facilitate and improve co-operative policing by helping to establish communities’ confidence in the country’s criminal justice system, and helping to improve service delivery by law-enforcement agencies. While there are challenges in sustaining this collaboration, both parties must find practical ways of making the partnership work, in order to address their mutual concern over crime in South African neighbourhoods.

[1] Lebina Shabe was a researcher at VOSESA and is now a project co-ordinator at Gauteng’s Provincial Department of Housing.
[2] The overarching body that oversees crime prevention at this level is the Community Safety Forum (CSF). The CPF is represented in the CSF, which comprises councillors (local government), the Johannesburg Metropolitan Police and resident association chairpersons.
[3] Interview with Superintendent Nanda Moodley, station commissioner, SAPS Parkview, 24 July 2006.