SOSHANGUVE, SOUTH AFRICA — Letlhogonolo Tshepe is an unlikely crime-stopper. In a country with one of the highest murder rates in the world, she doesn't carry a gun, can't make arrests, and doesn't even earn a salary.
But as a "peace worker" in an innovative crime-reduction program for black townships, Ms. Tshepe knows that she is making a difference in her hometown.
"In Soshanguve, the crime is very high, so at least we can assist in bringing it down," says Tshepe, one of more than 100 volunteers nationwide in the Peace and Development Program (PDP). "At least our presence reduces crime. When the criminal sees us in our uniforms, he becomes afraid, and he doesn't break into houses."
The volunteer patrols in Soshanguve are one small answer to what South Africa's President Thabo Mbeki calls the country's single biggest problem: crime. Despite billions of dollars spent on crime prevention, South Africa remains a dangerous place, and and while rich (mainly white) South Africans fret about the effectiveness of their high-voltage electric fencing, it is poor black communities like this township north of Tshwane (as the capital city of Pretoria is now officially called) that feel the effects of crime the most.
For years, those with modest means had no choice but to rely on the increasingly overstretched South African police for protection. But now, through the PDP, a few notable communities are experimenting with untapped resources: their youth and their sense of community.
"Let's give some credit to the government: They have increased the numbers of police from 120,000 in 2001 to 160,000 today, and their budget has almost doubled," says Johan Burger, a senior researcher on crime and justice programs at the Institute for Security Studies in Tshwane. But police officials recognize they will never be able to patrol all corners of the country, Mr. Burger says, and they need to look for new ways to extend protection to areas that remain lawless.
"One of the things they are doing is mobilizing the community – with neighborhood watches and business watches and reservist police forces," says Burger, who has recently written a book on sector policing in South Africa. "If you can do adequate training, and give these people power and authority to act as police, this will make a difference."
Perceptions of crime in South Africa, like many other things, often divide along racial lines. Many whites believe things are getting worse, because the police who used to patrol their neighborhoods are being given larger areas to patrol, including black neighborhoods. Many blacks, by contrast, see the crime problem as getting better, because South Africa's police resources are increasingly being devoted to black areas. Unlike the police of apartheid days, who mainly came to black townships to control dissent, today's police are providing protection that many blacks never had before.
Yet, despite the improvements, there's still a host of problems, including a wide communication gap between the police and crime-ridden township communities.
This gap is the biggest challenge that South Africa faces, says Ulrich Burgmer, project coordinator for the PDP for Germany's foreign-assistance mission, GTZ. It was one of the most striking things that Mr. Burgmer noticed on his first visit to South Africa in 1992, as an election observer for the European Union.
"In Europe, if they see someone stealing, they inform the police, and that makes the task easier for the police," says Mr. Burgmer, a former German police officer. "That is what is still a bit lacking in South Africa. And this is like a heaven for criminals. They can hide in communities, because the communities don't talk with the police."
To bridge that gap, Burgmer conceived of a program in which trusted young people would act as a go-between for the community and the police. These young people rapidly began to take on more and more duties, including mediation of local conflicts, often over family disputes or unpaid debts. In theory, these types of problems would be resolved peacefully, which would have a big effect on crime.
Soshanguve is one of the testing grounds for this theory. The statistics don't show a significant drop in crime here since the PDP program began a few years ago, because the kinds of issues that peace workers deal with – financial disputes, domestic squabbles – have never been counted by the police.
Yet Thabo Letlabe, a local police coordinator of the PDP program, says the effect of the peace workers is powerful. The best proof of PDP's value, says Mr. Letlabe, is that local people are bringing more and more cases to the peace workers to solve, catching social crimes before they lead to big criminal offenses.
"Here you have small crimes, such as someone owing 20 rand ($2.75), and if you don't solve that, it can end in assault, which is criminal," says Letlabe. "You can't say the program is decreasing crime, you can't give a number, but indirectly, they are helping bridge the gap between police and the community. And that's helping."
Peace workers do not have the power to arrest. If they witness a crime, such as a robbery or a rape, they call for police backup. In addition, peace workers receive training from the police in mediation and negotiating disputes, and knowing how to keep both sides calm. Even so, the cases can be as emotional as anything on a TV cop show.
In a small office of PDP, a taxi driver who gives his name as John, seems to have reached the limits of his patience. Three years ago, he ran into financial problems and exchanged his minivan taxi for a smaller car owned by a friend named Sphiwe. Sphiwe was supposed to pay the 3,000 rand ($411) difference in value of the two vehicles, but never did so.
Today is Sphiwe's last chance to solve the problem without going to court. But Sphiwe is late for his appointment at PDP, and at 10:00 a.m. peace worker Stephen Monyai fills out the paperwork to refer the case to small claims court.
John begins to settle down. "I'm very angry, it's been three years that he's owed me money," says John. "But this place is fair. Look, this can lead to violence. People kill each other for money."
As the noontime sun beats down on the dirt roads of Block L, a middle class neighborhood in Soshanguve, Lebogang Monyepao leads a bicycle patrol of three young male peace workers in Soshanguve. Their fluorescent-yellow vests, khaki cargo pants, and combat boots are eye-catching, and neighbors smile as the young men glide by.
"This is my neighborhood, I live in Block L," says Mr. Monyepao. Like most peace workers, he has a high school degree, but little other job experience, because jobs in Soshanguve are few and far between.
Monyepao sees his one-year commitment to the peace-worker program as a crucial step for his job prospects. Nearly 85 percent of the 300 former peace workers have found employment after their service; many have become police officers.
But Monyepao is also glad that his service is helping the community. "People are happy with me – they like to give me information so that we can reduce crime."