My Saturday evening in dark and sleepy suburbia on 11 September 2021, previously consumed by spring cleaning as I try to bring my abode into a sense of order (Jordan Peterson would be proud), was disrupted as the chaotic reality of South Africa invaded my usually peaceful Cape Town community. Fortunately, and unfortunately, I had a front-row seat to the events as they unfolded. It is unfortunate, for it is never a good thing for a crime to take place. But its fortune will become evident, in what it revealed about my community, and of many multicultural communities in this country and around the world.
It is best to start at the beginning. I was busy spring cleaning. My flat stands in the backyard of my family property, and I was doing what every hoarder does when they want to remove clutter but can’t bring themselves to throw it away: rearranging. This rearrangement brought me to the front of the house, adjacent to the street, where I spoke to my father.
Barely a word had been said, when we heard a quiet ruckus. The sound of wires being shifted and a faint clicking. He looked over the wall, and immediately announced that someone was stealing a bicycle.
I bolted to my flat and grabbed the first thing I saw. Fortunately, I’m a sword collector and the first thing I saw was a katana. I joined my father on the street, where we called out to the owners of the house to inform them of the intruder. As this was happening, my mother and girlfriend were contacting Princeton (private security) and the police.
My father yelled to attract neighbours, while gaining entry to the property to ensure our neighbours were safe. I ran to the other street, as we saw figures jumping over rooftops to escape. We wanted to cut off their escape route.
Neighbours were already emerging, carrying hockey sticks, knives, swords, and even a braai skewer. Dogs joined the commotion, choosing to excitedly follow their owners rather than confront each other.
Princeton arrived within two minutes, tops. I directed them to the correct house. Another Princeton car arrived seconds thereafter, and I updated the driver on the situation. We locked down the street most likely to be used to escape, as the neighbours came out in droves.
It is pertinent to note, at this time, that Princeton was not a client of the house that was burgled. They did not question the call-out. They did not hesitate to come to the aid of a neighbour of a client. As is to be expected of the private sector, they conducted themselves professionally, politely, and expertly.
Enough neighbours were filling their street that they didn’t need me watching it. This was when I heard that the perps (as two were spotted) may still be on the property. Being one of the better armed (if still inadequately) residents, I went to the house.
A sobbing child was at the door. I asked if she was okay, to which she was unable to respond. She insisted that she wanted to open the gate to let me in. Her mother had gone to investigate the intrusion and hadn’t returned. She was traumatised, as one would expect.
I called for armed guards to come into the house, while I pulled the girl aside, asking her name, insisting that her mother was okay, and then distracting her with simple and off-topic questions about school and hobbies. This seemed to work, as she calmed down.
I was not concerned at this point with catching the criminals, as enough of the neighbourhood was patrolling, sharing information, scaling rooftops, and contacting neighbours to scour their properties and ensure they were safe.
My priority was simply to ensure this girl remained physically safe and felt secure, and to attempt to dull the trauma as much as possible. We discussed school, anime, Japan, and how stupid the criminals were for failing to steal her bike.
Soon enough, she was laughing. Of course, this will still leave a scar, but hopefully it will be smaller than it could have been.
As was to be expected, a police vehicle arrived 30 minutes after the call-out. They asked for a description of the perps, to which we answered that nobody had seen them in detail as it was night-time. They then sped out of the neighbourhood, almost hitting a parked car. Hours later, they arrived with back-up. To their credit, they did come back at all. We expected less.
At this point, the entire neighbourhood was out in droves. CCTV footage didn’t show them escaping the block where they had been spotted, so it was likely they were hiding on a rooftop. Private security, neighbourhood watch, and (much later) police were working together to lock down the neighbourhood and catch the scum.
Throughout all of this, strangers and neighbours ran side by side to check on each other, chase criminals, and ring on doorbells to make sure people were safe. I made some friends, comforted a neighbour, and helped rally a community to respond to the needs of one of our own.
I do not know if we caught anyone, or if we will, but everyone is safe, and we showed that we won’t go quietly.
We Stood Together
Why, then, is this important?
On a global or national scale, it is not. Crimes happen every day in South Africa. Many of them don’t have happy endings. This was definitely not a happy evening. No night when a child is traumatised can be a happy one. But it could have been far worse.
What became really evident for me this night, is that it disproved a common claim by many South Africans. A claim that the problem with South Africa is multiracialism and multiculturalism; that cosmopolitan, multicultural society has eroded community values and left us defenceless, unattached, apathetic, and lazy.
But on Saturday evening, when it really counted for one family in our community, I think we proved the communitarians wrong.
My neighbourhood is as multiracial, multicultural, and as cosmopolitan as it comes. We have no religion or even churches in common. There is no church in our block. One has to drive to the nearest one. We have no culture in common. Afrikaners, Englishmen, Indians, Coloureds, Zimbabweans, Xhosa, and swathes of European and African people live in one street alone. We have no common roots or culture. We don’t even have ownership in common, as the majority are tenants. Transient. I have seen neighbours come and go for the years I’ve lived here.
The only thing we have in common is the essential commonality of individuals, and the need to defend those who we live amongst.
This is not to say that this would happen in every community. Bystander apathy, and detached apathy in general, is real. I am sure some of our neighbours did ignore the commotion outside. But that would be the case in all communities, not just multicultural ones. There is no society in the world where everyone is willing and able. But what is clear is that community can also be found in what might be regarded as a liberal, cosmopolitan arrangement, and is not monopolised by those who wear their fondness for Community™ on their sleeves.
Without any central authority, elite or even an organiser, we seamlessly filled the streets to defend one of our own. It took only a shout to rally neighbours to help each other. And it took no coaxing, united culture, or enforced community to unite us during the time of need of one of us. While we were spared the riots of KwaZulu-Natal, where multicultural communities also banded together to aid one another, this showed that Cape Town is no different.
All that mattered was that we stood together. Many cultures and creeds with an essential common goal. To do the right thing at the ring time. Together.