Grahamstown’s holiday crime mystery

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The mixed smells of fried fish and hot curry paint the air like something from Pollock. Jacaranda trees open their blooms to greet the afternoon. Clouds sit low against the horizon, failing to threaten the sun’s high position in the Grahamstown sky. Though there exists the constant rush of the work day, nobody seems to be in any kind of hurry.

The summer holiday season has arrived.

With the arrival of the festive season, also comes a less welcome guest to the small town. As students’ digs are left empty and unattended, and less people frequent the streets, crime is said to increase during the holidays.

December 2014 Africa Check published an article examining this belief. The article stated that “opportunistic crime” increased during the holiday season.

“[M]any businesses close during the festive season and many households visit holiday destinations or gather at rural homesteads. This means that many of the high-risk areas may become low risk, and areas that are “sleepy hollows” most of the year may become more high risk over the December holiday period.

As the article dates back three years, Grocott’s Mail further investigated the accuracy of this claim.

Busy burglars

In a November article, “Burglars busy in Grahamstown”, Grocott’s discovered that robberies (residential and non-residential) in Grahamstown West and East have increased over the past two years. HiTec Response Manager, Kenny Knoetze stated that the amount of alarms they receive during December and January has increased each year since 2015, and is “building up” for 2017. “Most are false alarms”, he said. However, the most common crimes HiTec responds to during the holiday period are residential or farm break-ins and attacks.

Ron Weissenberg, Chairman of Micronized SA Limited, said business owners take extra care around security during these two months. “Opportunistic crime increases over the holidays”, he said. Criminals are not afraid of going to jail, Weissenberg said, “but of getting caught”. With fewer people in Grahamstown, the chances of being caught are drastically reduced.

Iain Reid, Principal Psychologist at Fort England hospital emphasised that unemployment is directly linked to opportunistic crime.

“A lot of the unemployment is seasonal, so in December and January the town is operating on a much lower economic level, there are fewer resources for earning money,” Reid said. “I’m not saying that impoverished people rob, but I’m saying that they are under more pressure.”

Though fewer people, more empty houses and increased economic pressures seem to equal more opportunistic crime, this is not the only source of the problem. The increase in alcohol consumption and drug usage over the holidays is a major concern to Grahamstown residents.

Alcohol, drugs and crime

“Alcohol, drugs and crime seem to go together”, said Richard Gaybba, Chairperson of the Grahamstown Business Forum. More money in the bank, along with time off from work, allows for more drinking and partying. Weissenberg agreed: “There is an alcohol and a drug problem.”

Gaybba suggested that liquor stores could alter their holiday hours, which could in turn reduce the amount of alcohol being sold.

Christmas Eve 2014, Grocott’s Mail reported a harrowing incident involving alcohol that occurred in the early hours.  An man and his girlfriend from Zolani visited a liquor store in the Phaphamani location. “‘There was an altercation with a 17-year-old and the elder man was stabbed three times in the head with a ‘Rambo’-style [serrated]knife,” Coetzer, Crime Intelligence Officer in the Grahamstown SAPS, was quoted saying. The man was taken to Settlers hospital where he was pronounced dead on arrival.

SAPS spokesperson Captain Mali Govender confirmed that the incident was liquor related. “[The] man was severely stabbed in the head, more hacked than stabbed,” Govender said. The 17-year-old suspect was arrested within 24 hours, found guilty of murder, and sentenced to eight years in prison. Five years of the sentence were suspended for five years.

Knoetze told Grocott’s Mail that HiTec and SAPS are less strict during the holiday months with regard to alcohol and public intoxication. Whether this leniency adds to Grahamstown’s seasonal crime rate is unknown. But a lack of thorough policing concerning alcohol contributes to a culture conducive to crime and violence. Making stories like the Christmas Eve stabbing of 2014, not so rare.

Reid believed that an increase in crime over the holidays was a worldwide phenomenon. He said that in Grahamstown this is a result of four major factors. “You’ve got interpersonal stresses, alcohol, substances, a socioeconomic divide that’s accentuated, and that’s a recipe for increased crime.”

Christmas bonuses

The socioeconomic divide between Grahamstown East and West is no secret, and becomes more evident during the holidays. Financial security during this time is a key concern for residents of Grahamstown East.

Gaybba and Weissenberg said their staff receive their salaries and Christmas bonuses in a way that prevents theft or poor spending. Gaybba said several years ago staff members had reported being robbed of their cash bonuses on the way home from work. Gaybba has since switched to electronic deposits. Weissenberg splits up the salary and the bonus between December and January in the hope of curbing frivolous spending.

The fifth factor to consider in Grahamstown’s holiday crime mystery is the safety and well-being of youth. Summer is a time for freedom. Freedom from school and homework means more time for mischief. In Grahamstown West, children can indulge in video games, movies or outdoor activities. Grahamstown East paints a much different picture. With schools closed, NGOs on holiday and scarce access to sports facilities, what’s a kid to do?

Resident, Nasiphi Matshaya told Grocott’s Mail, “Grahamstown, especially in the location, has a high rate of alcohol abuse and other social problems. A lot of children are not safe, as they are exposed to lots of negative things such as alcohol abuse, domestic violence and some are victims of sexual abuse that are happening within their homes and within the community. Those kind of children are better off when they are within the school environment, which is safer.”

Rod Amner of Rhodes University said a volunteer group from the US was coming to work with youth in the township from 27 December until 5 January.

One week of engagement out of an eight-week holiday. This is not enough. The 17-year-old convicted murderer of the 2014 Christmas Eve stabbing is a result of Grahamstown East’s lack of resources for youth.

‘My child is your child’

Another resident pleaded, “I believe an awareness campaign on child protection should be done in the community so that more people are aware of helping children and that people should adopt the motto, ‘my child is your child’. The spirit of Ubuntu has been lost in our community. Reviving that spirit is also a way of uniting the communities to work together.”

Gaybba added that there is a need for “healthy escapism”. Rather than turning to alcohol and substances, young people need better activities. Common street drugs like ‘tik’ are a major source of crime and violence. Reid commented that “vulnerability is brought out as a result of substances”. The consequences of this are unpredictable.

So, does crime increase in Grahamstown over the holidays? The answer is yes. Opportunistic crime does increase over the festive season; as well as alcohol consumption, substance abuse and frivolous spending.

Africa Check’s claim that “sleepy hollows” become high-risk areas rings true for Grahamstown. The community can work to address these issues by indulging responsibly, keeping an eye out for others, and focusing on uplifting disadvantaged youth. It is clear that Grahamstown cannot depend on the municipality to resolve issues, so it is up to the community to make the town safe for all residents, from East to West.

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