A Positive Story of Street Justice

By Tasmi Quazi, Pictures taken by Prakash Bhika, Tasmi Quazi & Dennis Stols

One of the earliest meetings with the newly formed Palmer Street Recyclers Working Committee at the Priority Zone Offices

Asiye eTafuleni (AeT) has been working closely with two groups of inner-city cardboard recyclers on the Imagine Durban Cardboard Recycling Project since 2009. One of the groups in Palmer Street consists of both male and female recyclers. Through the project process, it became increasingly significant that many of the men recyclers struggle with social issues such as homelessness and substance abuse. Some of these men are rehabilitated ex-convicts while others are recurring crime offenders.

Through progressive engagement with the project, including monthly meetings facilitated by AeT, the recyclers organised themselves as a working committee. Here, they realised that having the recurring crime offenders in the group was jeopardising the success of the project. Consequently, a code of conduct for the workplace was developed to manage the more difficult members; with a system of issuing warnings, dispute resolution through impartial mediation and finally being removed as a Project participant if the offender in question showed no sign of redress.

Nicholas Mahlangu one of the hardworking men recyclers based in Palmer Street

These decisions have been jointly developed and implemented by the recycling community, AeT project facilitators and the immense support of representatives from the Priority Zone (a facilities management company working for the City government) and UNISA’s Bright Site project. The main reason for the code of conduct was to ensure better urban management and a safer working environment for everyone interfacing with the public work place, not only the recyclers, but also the passing pedestrians and surrounding businesses.

On 2nd of March 2012, two different criminal incidents affecting the Palmer Street cardboard recycling community unfolded. The most recent was the case of a project trolley being taken by force by an “expelled” member of the Project. As project participant, Musa, was about to sell his cardboard at a buy-back centre, he was robbed of his trolley and its contents at knife-point by the expelled member who was assisted by other intimidators. A distraught Musa informed Maria, a nominated leader of the recycling community, who in turn called AeT’s Senior Project Officer, Patric Ndlovu for assistance. Patric advised Musa to open a charge of armed robbery against the suspect, seeing as there were a number of eye-witnesses during the incident.

One of the monthly meetings held at Priority Zone

Going the extra mile, Patric accompanied Musa to the South African Police Service (SAPS) to provide a detailed account of the incident, including providing pictures of the stolen trolley and the suspect. Thereafter, they went to a number of Buy-Back centres to alert the “middle-agents” about the stolen trolley and the suspect. To Patric’s complete surprise, he encountered the suspect at one of the Buy-Back centres, who promptly admitted his guilt on hearing that there are eye-witnesses that will testify against him about the armed robbery. The suspect assured that he would bring the trolley back by the end of the week.

A police officer then accompanied Patric and Musa back to Palmer Street to verify the details of the case. Here, they had a second encounter with another expelled member, this time a murder suspect, who by his own admission and verified by eye-witnesses, severely assaulted a fellow male recycler (who later died) back in November 2011.

It was because of the concerted effort from the project participants of the Palmer Street recycling community and Patric that the case was established and the necessary information was conveyed to the police regarding the details of the murder. This included connecting the eye-witnesses on scene to the police, and also eventually conveying the bad news to the deceased man’s family, three months after his murder. To everyone’s dismay the impending arrest of the murder suspect had been delayed due to the lack of prioritisation of the case by the investigating officer in charge. However, having a new officer at hand for another case altogether provided the ideal moment to have the murder suspect arrested and handed over to the SAPS, where he was detained and finally charged.

The Palmer Street recyclers with the project trolleys and aprons

The Palmer Street Recyclers were relieved to see the murder suspect finally charged, feeling uneasy about his occasional and unwelcome presence in the area. This is after seeing him being released from several serious charges and hearing him boast that he is invincible against the law. Interestingly, the murder suspect admitted his guilt and cooperated throughout the process of the arrest and charging, even after being told that he is likely to face life imprisonment for murder.

Due to the recycling community and Patric’s active involvement in these cases, it was emphasised that ensuring justice was served, was not about personal vendettas against the “expelled” individuals. As project participant Musa shared his thoughts with everyone in isiZulu, saying that: “You have to pay for your sins while you’re still on this earth, because in the next life, there is no redemption”, he jokingly added, “There, you will only roast in the fire like braai meat (barbeque)”. The recyclers expressed immense gratitude for AeT and Priority Zone’s help in dealing with the two criminal incidents.

A group photo of the Palmer Street recyclers during COP 17 last year

In conclusion, the workplace code of conduct has further empowered the Palmer Street recyclers with maintaining a safer work environment in their local community – on seeing that the police and justice system have seemingly failed them on occasions. At the macro-level however, these accounts highlight positive outcomes with respects to resolving criminal justice events without inadvertently forcing the community to take law into their own hands, or becoming apathetic about justice being served.

Furthermore, it has highlighted how the AeT staffs’ multidisciplinary skill sets come to good use in the most surprising ways sometimes. For instance, in the way Senior Project Officer of AeT and ex-Metro police officer, Patric Ndlovu, unwittingly puts on his policing shoes now and again for the cause. Click here  to read another story of AeT’s unique involvement in resolving another incident of crime.


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