What can councils do to tackle knife crime when government is still slashing funding?

Knives handed in during a 2008 amnesty. Image: Getty.

The Labour mayor of Tower Hamlets on what the east London borough is doing to prevent knife crime.

When a violent attack happens on our streets, as a community we go through something similar to the stages of grief: fear, anger, disbelief and then acceptance but searching for answers. We all want action which will stop another family going through this pain or another life needlessly lost. Effective community safety is not just about enforcement but looking at the bigger picture and we all play our role in that.

The response after a violent incident happens is often to call for more money or focus into this initiative or changing that law. This is happening to our children, our neighbours and our friends. Emotions naturally run high. We all agree it has to stop so we need our whole community and all our institutions and bodies to work together.

While reported crime had been falling for a long time in the UK, it has started to rise again more recently. One must always remember, though, that there is only a limited link between recorded levels of crime and public fear of crime. The latter often lags the former, or has a spike in response to a particular event or series of events. But anxiety is understandable, and we can readily identify with the families of victims – it is only human.

In the aftermath of fatal attacks I’ve spoken to the victims’ families, their neighbours and those concerned for the safety of our community. The question is both what we as a community can do, and what the authorities can do to protect us.

As a council, the London Borough of Tower Hamlets is are already taking action. We are clear that others – such as the police – are in the front line and need to be supported, but also that many others, down to the grass roots, have a role too.

We have tried, with stretched funds, to do more. As part of our public health approach to tackling violence a unique project has been set up in the Royal London Hospital, funded by us to ensure those involved in knife crime are identified and offered appropriate support to move away from this criminal lifestyle. The only one of its kind in London, the project went live in March 2019. To date 33 young people have been engaged.

We’ve stepped in following the loss of over 200 police officers in Tower Hamlets since 2010 and invested £3m in additional police officers as I know our residents want to see more police on the beat. Their work is focused on what residents have told me are priorities. In 2018 the council funded police alone made over 350 arrests and conducted 460 stop and searches, all in relation to tackling the drug problems and associated violence.

We are plugging the gaps austerity has caused despite our own core funding from government being 64 per cent less compared with 2010. We’ve had to do what we can and use ratepayers money for resources that our community needs. It should really be coming from central government, but our residents want results not excuses, and rightly so.

As a council we are investing in a range of initiatives aimed at prevention and early intervention. We fund a huge drug rehabilitation programme. We take tough action against businesses that sell knives to young people. We’re investing in our youth service so we have a six day a week provision in every single area of the borough, run from 18 youth hubs supplemented by many other projects. It’s one of the best funded youth services in London and our early years provision helps families. But we need to review it to check we are deploying it in the right ways.

Getting young people engaged and in activities is one way of stopping them falling in with the wrong crowd. During the school holidays we fund a huge programme of sports and activities and last year alongside this provided 20,000 meals to tackle holiday hunger. We have to work with schools and pupil referral units and places where people can fall through the cracks.

We work with young people because of the risks they face and the need to provide, where we can, nourishing and supportive activity. In partnership with organisations such as Streets of Growth, we empower young people to take responsibility for their own lives and do things for themselves through careers guidance, performing arts programmes, street work and health programmes.

Taking a holistic approach means tackling anti-social behaviour which can be a gateway into more serious violence, and intervening early and ensuring people feel valued in their communities. It also means tackling inequality and getting people to realise their potential through initiatives like our employment scheme which successfully got 5,000 people into work or training last year. This changes lives, and we hope sets people on a different course away from violence.

We need our community to have pride in their area. We have invested in a “designing out crime” officer to improve road layouts and lighting and in removing graffiti which can encourage anti-social behaviour.

We can do all that work – but on its own it won’t stop violence. It’s just one part of the solution. It can’t be ok that people think they need to carry a weapon to protect themselves.

This needs to change. Parents, schools and community leaders all have a role in reinforcing this message. It’s an issue where we all play our role.

John Biggs is the elected Labour mayor of the London Borough of Tower Hamlets.


In South Africa's cities, evictions are happening despite a national ban

An aerial view shows a destroyed house in Lawley, south of Johannesburg, on April 20, 2020. The city has been demolishing informal structures on vacant land despite a moratorium on evictions. (Marco Longari/AFP via Getty Images)

On the morning of 15 July, a South African High Court judge ruled that the city of Cape Town’s Anti-Land Invasion Unit had illegally evicted a man when it destroyed the shack where he was living.

That afternoon, the Anti-Land Invasion Unit was out again, removing shacks in another informal settlement.

Evictions were banned in South Africa for nine weeks, after the national government placed the country under a strict Covid-19 lockdown in late March. At present, eviction orders are automatically suspended until the country moves to a lower “alert level” and can only be carried out with a special order from a judge.

Yet major cities including Cape Town, Johannesburg and eThekwini (created through the merger of Durban with several surrounding communities), have continued to use municipal law enforcement agencies and private security companies to remove people from informal housing. In many cases those operations have been conducted without a court order – something required under regular South African law.

Around 900 people were evicted from three informal settlements in eThekwini during the eviction ban, according to the Church Land Programme, a local NGO. Its director, Graham Philpott, says it’s also aware of evictions in other informal settlements.

While evictions aren’t a “new experience” in these communities, the NGO released a report on lockdown evictions because they were “so explicitly illegal”. “There was a moratorium in place,” Philpott says, “and the local municipality acted quite flagrantly against it. There’s no confusion, there’s no doubt whatsoever, it is illegal. But it is part of a trend where the eThekwini municipality has acted illegally in evicting the poor from informal settlements.”

Evictions also took place in Cape Town and Johannesburg during so-called “hard lockdown” according to local activists. In eThekwini and other municipalities, the evictions have continued despite restrictions. In Cape Town, authorities pulled a naked man, Bulelani Qholani, from his shack. That incident, which was captured on video, drew condemnation from the national government and four members of the Anti-Land Invasion unit were suspended. 

The cities say they’re fighting “land invasions” – illegal occupations without permission from the land owner.

“Land invasions derail housing and service projects, lead to the pollution of waterways, severely prejudice deserving housing beneficiaries and cause property owners to lose their investments over night,” Cape Town’s executive mayor, Dan Plato said in a statement. (Plato has also claimed that Qholani did not live in the shack he was pulled from and that he disrobed when municipal authorities arrived.)

South African municipalities often claim that the shacks they destroy are unoccupied. 

If they were occupied, says Msawakhe Mayisela, a spokesman for the eThekwini municipality, the city would get a court order before conducting an eviction. “Everything we’re doing is within the ambit of the law,” Mayisela says. But “rogue elements” are taking advantage of Covid-19, he added.

“We fully understand that people are desperately in need of land, but the number of people that are flocking to the cities is too much, the city won’t be able to provide housing or accommodation for everyone overnight,” he says. 

While eThekwini claims to be a caring city, local activists say the evictions show otherwise.

In one case, 29 women were evicted from shacks during the hard lockdown. With nowhere to go, they slept in an open field and were arrested by the South African Police Service for violating the lockdown, Philpott says.

“These evictions are dehumanizing people whose dignity is already compromised in many ways,” says S’bu Zikode, the president of Abahlali baseMjondolo, a community organization whose Zulu name translates to “the people of the shacks”. 

“It has reminded us that we are the people that do not count in our society.”

Municipal law enforcement and private security contractors hired by cities regularly fire rubber bullets, or even live ammunition, at residents during evictions. Some 18 Abahlali baseMjondolo activists have been killed since the organization was founded in 2005, Zikode says, most by the eThekwini Land Invasion Unit and Metro Police.

(Mayisela says that if city employees have broken the law, Abahlali baseMjondolo can file a complaint with the police. “There is no conclusive evidence to the effect that our members have killed them,”  he says.)

Other Abahlali baseMjondolo activists have been killed by what Zikode calls “izinkabi,” hitmen hired by politicians. Two eThekwini city councillors were sentenced to life in prison 2016 after they organized the killing of Thuli Ndlovu, an Abahlali baseMjondolo organizer. A member of the Land Invasion Unit who is currently facing a charge of attempted murder after severely injuring a person during an eviction remains on the job, Zikode says.

South Africa’s 1996 constitution is intended to protect the public from arbitrary state violence and guarantees a right to housing, as well as due process in evictions. But for Zikode, the South African constitution is a “beautiful document on a shelf”.

“For the working class and the poor, it’s still difficult to have access to court. You’ve got to have money to get to court,” he says. 

The actions by municipal law enforcement are breaking down social trust, says Buhle Booi, a member of the Khayelitsha Community Action Network, a community group in the largest township in Cape Town.

“There’s a lack of police resources and those very few police resources that they have, they use to destroy people’s homes, to destroy people’s peace, rather than fighting crime, real criminal elements that we see in our society,” Booi says.

For him, it’s a continuation of the practices of the colonial and apartheid governments, pushing poor people, most of whom are Black, to the periphery of cities.

Around one-fifth of South Africa’s urban population live in shacks or informal dwellings, according to a 2018 report by SERI. Many more live in substandard housing. City governments maintain that the shacks destroyed during anti-land invasion operations are unfinished and unoccupied. But Edward Molopi, a research and advocacy officer at SERI, says that this claim is an attempt to escape their legal obligations to get a court order and to find alternative accommodation for affected people. 

The roots of the current eviction crisis go back to apartheid, which barred non-white people from living in cities. Between the 1940s and 1970s, tens of thousands of people were forcibly relocated from neighbourhoods like Johannesburg’s Sophiatown and Cape Town’s District Six to remote townships.

In the 26 years following the end of apartheid, deepening economic inequality and rampant unemployment have limited access to formal housing for millions of South Africans. Government housing programs have mostly focused on building small stand-alone homes, often on the peripheries of cities far from jobs and amenities.

While these well-intentioned projects have built millions of homes, they’ve failed to keep up with demand, says Marie Huchzermeyer, a professor at the Centre for Urbanism & Built Environment Studies at the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg. Government-funded housing projects “will never on it’s own be enough,” she says. “It has to be accompanied by land release.”

Government policies call for the “upgrading” of informal settlements and the formalization of residents’ occupation. But “there are still very, very, very few projects” of that nature in South Africa, Huchzermeyer says. “Even if it’s an informal settlement that’s been around for 20 years, there still seems to be a political wish to punish people for having done that.” The government wants people to go through the formal process of being given a house, she says – and for them to be thankful to the government for providing it.

At the municipal level, change will require “real leadership around informal settlement upgrading and around ensuring that land is available for people to occupy,” she says. 

Despite the end of enforced racial segregation, spacial apartheid remains a factor in South Africa. There are few mixed-income neighbourhoods. Those who can afford to often live behind walls in sprawling low-density suburbs, while the poor live in overcrowded slums and apartment buildings.

The creation of the apartheid city “didn't happen by chance,” says Amira Osman, a professor of architecture at the Tshwane University of Technology. “It was a deliberate, structured approach to the design of the city. We need a deliberate, structured approach that will undo that.”

Since last fall, Johannesburg’s Inclusionary Housing Policy has required developments of 20 or more units to set aside 30% of those units for low-income housing.

The policy, which faced significant opposition from private developers, won’t lead to dramatic change, says Sarah Charlton, a professor at the Centre for Urbanism and Built Environment Studies, but it is “an important and significant step.”

Zikode isn’t optimistic that change will come for shack dwellers, however.

“People in the high positions of authority pretend that everything is normal,” he says. “They pretend that everyone is treated justly, they pretend that everyone has homes with running water, that everyone has a piece of land – and hide the truth and the lies of our democracy.”

Jacob Serebrin is a freelance journalist currently based in Johannesburg. Follow him on Twitter.