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Cruise Control

Rabbi Ari Taback

Post-apartheid crime left people in Johannesburg feeling abandoned and helpless. Yet while residents still live behind high walls and security fences, the “contact crime” rate has dropped more than 80 percent in the last seven years in some areas, since the founding of Community Active Protection (CAP), an ambitious community patrol created by South Africa’s chief rabbi. Mishpacha took a ride with a CAP patrol unit, hoping for a quiet night.

Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Johannesburg,South Africa. Darkness is falling over the streets of Johannesburgand I’m sitting in the back seat of an unmarked car in the heart of the predominantly Jewish neighborhood of Glenhazel.

Up front are Nic and Danny, two Jewish men in their 20s, both senior members of the Community Active Protection (CAP) project, a security initiative that addresses the high crime rate in more than a dozen neighborhoods in which its patrols are deployed.

I met Nic at a shiur I gave at CAP headquarters, and he has kindly obliged to take me for a look behind the scenes. Nic and Danny seem far more comfortable in their bulletproof vests than I feel in mine, and the menacing-looking weapon on Danny’s lap would look less out of place in a Humvee inBaghdad.

Ours is a “spotter” patrol, and our task is to cruise the streets of Glenhazel on the lookout for suspicious activity.

We set off and within minutes we’re onto something. A stationary vehicle is parked on the side of the road. A man in a hoodie is joined by

another man who had been loitering on the sidewalk. Nic pulls our car to a standstill a short distance away and reaches for his radio. “Tango One, this is Romeo Seven … we’re on Third Street and we have a champagne Nissan with two unknown males, registration Mike Charlie Hotel 3-7-9 Golf Papa, heading west.”

The car pulls away and Nic trails, unnoticed. We tail the car for a few blocks, updating the control room at each turn. Suddenly, I notice a large black van up ahead emblazoned with the CAP insignia that had pulled up on the opposite side of the road with blinkers flashing. As the Nissan passes, the CAP van pulls a fast U-turn and tucks in behind. He flashes his lights and the car slows to a halt. Two heavily armed CAP officers exit the van and sidle up to the Nissan and as they do, the vehicle I am in with Nic and Danny peels off onto a side street. Our role as undercover spotters in this particular interception is complete.

Undercover spotter teams are tasked only with identifying suspicious activity; the more risky business of actually confronting the threat is left to the highly trained tactical officers, most of whom have been handpicked from previous positions in the military and police services. As we cruise away from the scene, the radio chatters with updates from the officers, who have quizzed the occupants of the vehicle and are satisfied that the men were just going about their daily business.

The excursion is a far cry from my daily schedule as a rabbi and maggid shiur. What has motivated me to swap my fedora for a flak jacket is not an adrenaline-fueled fantasy to experience the lifestyle of an embedded journalist, but rather a desire to better understand the workings of a communal project that has not only changed my life, but the lives of thousands of Jewish and non-Jewish residents in Johannesburg.

A generation ago, asSouth Africawas undergoing its transformation from apartheid — where a wealthy white minority relinquished its iron rule over an impoverished black majority — the possibility of a Jewish community maintaining its foothold at the extreme southern tip ofAfricaseemed remote.

In 1995 when the South African Police Service was established in the post-apartheid government under then-president Nelson Mandela, there were 26,877 murders. In the period covering April 2009 through March 2010, the number of murders had declined to below 17,000. While that statistic is still high, the police are encouraged by the significant drop of close to 50 percent in these attacks.

 

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