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North Beach Sentinels

by Samora Chapman / 20.11.2012

On Thursday 15 November Metro Police swooped on North Beach and arrested seven car guards registered with the North Beach Community Policing Forum. It took 20 minutes for the unprotected parking lot to get hit up – two cars were stolen and four broken into. Within an hour the parking lot had been taken over by another crew of ‘illegal’ car guards who seemed more likely to stick you for R10 bucks than protect your car from trawling criminals.

The arrests were part of a sting operation orchestrated by the Metro Police and the Private Security Industry Registration Association (PSIRA). That day, 35 car guards were arrested along the ‘Golden Mile’ that stretches from uShaka to the Suncoast Casino. According to PSIRA spokeswoman, Siziwe Zuma (The Mercury, Friday 16 November), ‘the operation was a response to a number of public complaints about car guards harassing motorists and accusations that they were involved in crime.’

I got down to the beach the following Monday morning and was happy to see the familiar, weathered old faces of the North Beach sentinels standing guard. The same faces I have known since I started surfing in Durban 16 years ago.

Sean perches like an eagle, his keen eyes cut through the shimmering heat as he surveys the fleet of SUV’s, beat up surf mobiles and other cars under his watch. This is his domain. He has been a car guard at North Beach for 18 years. He knows almost every regular beach visitor by name.

Sean keeps your keys and discuses the weather like your next-door neighbour. You can even get his personal cellphone number and call him for a surf report. The years of standing guard in the hot Durban sun have turned his skin into a thick, red leather hide and his eyes are permanently bloodshot. The small donations he receives for his services have put his kids through school.
“They treated us like criminals,” said Sean of last week’s arrest. “We spent 25 hours in Durban Central Station holding cells, and were then released without even getting charged. For what? For trying to earn an honest living? They had no legal grounds to arrest us.”

On Monday morning the car guards met with Henry Naidoo, the chairperson of the North Beach Community Policing Forum (CPF), which is supposed to represent them. I was lucky enough to stumble upon the meeting outside the lifesaving club. “We spitting fire my bru!” Said Paul as I arrived on the scene.
Naidoo told me that the CPF is recognised by government. Naidoo has a record of the names, ID numbers and police clearances for all the guards who operate at North Beach. “Partnership in Policing is a part of the constitution,” said Naidoo. “The law clearly states that the police are not the only organization with the responsibility to prevent crime.”
A member of the SAP was presiding over the meeting. “Something fishy is going on,” was all he had to say about the arrests.
“What’s happening here is that a private company is trying to take over security at the beachfront,” reckons Sean. “And I think I know which company is behind this. They orchestrated the whole thing, intimidating us, treating us like filthy criminals.”
“However, it is against the law for a private security company to guard a public space,” says Naidoo. “Why didn’t the police or PSIRA approach me if they wanted to see accreditation for the North Beach car guards? They gave me no warning. I spent four hours at the PSIRA office trying to get my guys released. I am having a formal meeting with them and we intend to take legal action.”

A veteran surfer who has been surfing Durban’s piers for over 40 years had this to say: “In the early 90s crime really started exploding on the beachfront. I had my car broken into three or four times in the space of a few months while parked at North Beach. The criminals would wait until we paddled out and then they’d break into our cars. There was no solution to this problem and I even considered giving up surfing in town because I couldn’t afford to carry on. Then the car guards came onto the scene and made it possible for us to go surfing without being paranoid about our cars.”
“It’s not about the money we lost. It’s about our dignity,” says Joe another of the sun beaten guards. “We are just trying to make a decent living. We want a public apology.”
Another guard said he and his wife were both arrested. “My wife is traumatised by the experience. She is diabetic and she became very unstable while we were in there. She is too scared to even come to the meeting this morning.”

It’s not the first time the guards have been harassed by the police either. Sean explained that they were locked up for an entire weekend in the 90s. They were also arrested during the Soccer World Cup. “But we have no grudge about that,” says Sean. “FIFA are an international authority. Like an international law. And they were running things here and said we weren’t allowed to wear our uniform because it was interfering with the officials and confusing the tourists.”

Fuck FIFA. These guys have been faithfully policing this area for almost two decades. Then they are swept by the wayside when it suits the city, And arrested for trying to continue to make a living by providing a bona fide and appreciated service to the Durban surf community and beach users in general. It is a disgrace.

Of the 35 car guards arrested, only one of them was found to be a wanted criminal. I will be the first to admit that there is a serious problem of unaccredited, drunken vagabonds posing as car guards at some of the beaches and elsewhere in Durban. They are opportunists and completely untrustworthy. But this happens everywhere in the country… not just along the Durban beachfront.

By contrast, the North Beach car guards are organised, accredited, polite, reliable and friendly. They help make the beachfront the top tourist attraction this city has to offer. They should be lauded for their service, not bullied by the police. And if it is discovered that the police are acting under pressure from commercial entities trying to hijack their very livelihood… then charges need to be laid and heads need to roll. Either way the Metro police and the eThikwini Municipality owe us an explanation.

It’s pretty ironic that not one of the North Beach guards can even afford a car? And yet, every day they’re there honourably holding our keys and keeping an eye on our property. The Durban beachfront car guards are one of the few examples of a community policing initiative that is actually making a difference. And we need to stand up for them and the great service they deliver so that we can go and frolic in the ocean whenever we please.

Watch this space. We’ll keep you posted as this story develops.

*All images © Samora Chapman.

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