Johannesburg, South Africa
Thomson Reuters Foundation

As looters ran through the streets of Johannesburg, South African grandmother Evelyne turned off her lights, stood by her window and carefully lifted her curtain, surveying the chaos as gunshots and screams filled the night air.

The 72-year-old was guarding her property, but she was also gathering information to share with her neighbourhood watch team, made up of a few male patrollers and about a dozen grandmothers in the inner city's Bertrams neighbourhood.

"I was scared to go outside, but I heard that there were gunshots coming from a nearby shop and groups of men running through the streets," said Evelyne, who relayed her observations to her team who then alerted police.

"One man tried to jump over my wall but I shouted through the window and he ran away," Evelyne, whose full name is being withheld to protect her identity, told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

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Thomas, Evelyn and Mpho pose for a photo in Bertrams in Johannesburg, South Africa, on 5th July. PICTURE: Thomson Reuters Foundation/Kim Harrisberg.

South Africa's worst violence in years broke out after the arrest of former president, Jacob Zuma, earlier this month with soldiers deployed to stop crowds looting everything from washing machines to fridges and groceries.

The unrest comes at a time of frustration with COVID-19 restrictions, government corruption scandals and inequality that persists 27 years after the end of white minority rule, with unemployment hitting a new high of 32.6 per cent this year.

"About two shops were looted, but we managed to stop up to 10 shops from being attacked because we were on the lookout and called police for urgent backup."

- Thomas Makama, founder of the neighbourhood watch scheme.

One of the most unequal countries in the world, South Africa saw its highest murder rate in a decade in 2020, with 21,000 homicides, or 58 a day, a figure five times higher than the global average, according to government statistics.

Residents say rising unemployment fuels drug use and crime, as more than a year of COVID-19 lockdowns has triggered major job losses, particularly in construction, the informal sector and private homes.

The grandmother lookout team - who generally patrol from the safety of their patios - have become more valuable than ever, said Thomas Makama, founder of the neighbourhood watch scheme.

"About two shops were looted, but we managed to stop up to 10 shops from being attacked because we were on the lookout and called police for urgent backup," said Makama, who called and visited the grandmothers to gather information.

"It's dangerous work," said 61-year-old Makama, who never carries a weapon and relies on his people skills to engage with criminals and police and dissipate danger.

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Thomas, the founder of the Bertrams Residents Movement, poses for a photo from his backyard in Johannesburg, South Africa, on 5th July. PICTURE: Thomson Reuters Foundation/Kim Harrisberg

Makama founded the Bertrams Residents Movement in 2015, after the community helped him get back his home when he was evicted and forced on to the streets by "hijackers" who were trying to illegally take over the site where he lived.

Makama, who was working as a panel beater and unable to afford rent for his family of six, had been given permission to build a shack on the land by its owners, who lived in Canada.

"The community realised what had happened and protested my eviction. We got legal support and eventually returned," said Makama, sitting alongside his corrugated iron shelter. "The community saved my life, so now I dedicate mine to them."

Makama patrols the streets at night on foot to make sure residents are safe, while the grandmothers act as extra eyes, quickly phoning Makama if they hear or witness crime.

Residents say Makama comes quickly at any hour to calm people down as they wait for the police to arrive.

"It takes two to fight crime: we need the community involved because they are there 24 hours and they know what is happening in their environment," said Bertrams police captain Richard Munyai, cautioning residents not to approach criminals.

"They mustn't be heroes, just informers."

Criminologist Anine Kriegler said the grandmothers sitting on their porches and looking out their windows are using a tried-and-tested method known as natural surveillance, which deters criminals by increasing the number of eyes on them.

"Grandmothers have been playing an important role in looking after young people for most of human history," said Kriegler of the University of Cape Town.

Such surveillance tools, which also include keeping entrances well-lit and cutting down bushes to eliminate hiding spots, offer a low-cost alternative to barricading yourself behind high walls and electric fences, she said.

"The wealthy buy themselves...fortification that harms natural surveillance," she said. "We can't look out for each other if we live in fortresses."

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Evelyne stands on her patio where she assists in community “patrols” in Bertrams in Johannesburg, South Africa, on 5th July. PICTURE: Thomson Reuters Foundation/Kim Harrisberg

Although many South Africans have lost faith in the police, with some even resorting to vigilantism, communities can work together to improve their security through neighbourhood watches, she said.

Makama is a firm believer in non-violent crime prevention, citing how one grandmother called him to stop a drug dealer beating his daughter. The police rushed to the scene and arrested the man who is still in prison today.

"There are a lot of problems but we do something to protect one another instead of waiting for things to get better," agreed Evelyne.

The group, made up of just 18 regular volunteers, also helps the community respond to illegal evictions, contact the government over water or electricity cuts, escorts children safely to school and runs a soup kitchen.

"We play an important role, even though we do it free - we do it because we care," said Elizabeth, a 60-year-old volunteer.

Uncertain whether looting would continue as darkness fell, Makama was preparing for another sleepless night, determined to give back to neighbours who have helped him over the years.

He described how he nearly cried at Christmas when he was short of food and 72-year-old Evelyne delivered a trolley filled with groceries to his door.

"If you love and protect your community, they will love and protect you too," he said.