Safety in the city: Contested spaces in Cape Town’s CCID

I feel safer in Cape Town’s city centre than I did five years ago. Even at night, I’m not afraid of parking my car and risking a considerable walk in the dark to my destination. Most of the time, it is because it is populated with people I have gauged a level of trust with: an informal car guard, or a public safety officer within eyeshot, wearing luminous green.

This sense of security is exactly what Cape Town’s Central City Improvement District (CCID) has worked to create. The CCID was established in 2000 by local property owners with the vision of transforming the central city into a “clean, safe and caring urban environment.” Its four departments now address key areas of city improvement.

Among them is Safety and Security, which employs 230 public safety officers (or PSOs) who patrol the central city’s footprint around the clock. Carola Koblitz, CCID’s communications and marketing manager, explains the PSOs’ function is to provide a top-up service to assist the work of their public partners: the City of Cape Town municipality and the South African Police.

As such, the CCID’s PSOs have no arresting powers. They only play a preventative role in reducing crime around the city. In my own experience, this has been successful: their mere presence makes me feel safe.

But is this the same sentiment of all city dwellers? Questionable incidents involving the CCID’s Safety and Security division have sporadically surfaced in the media over the last few years, such as the removal of a blind busker in St George’s Mall, and the abduction of a Zimbabwean man by a CCID vehicle in Long Street. The man alleged that CCID officers picked him up in Long Street before driving him around for four hours and then demanded payment for his release. Reflective of the many debates that surround urban regeneration and the role of public-private partnerships in cities, whose interests is the CCID serving in reality?

Ute Kuhlmann is a member of the public who has sought to explore some of these questions, especially after closely following an unsatisfactory complaint process of a relative, Kyle Mason-Jones’ negative encounter with the CCID in 2012 after he intervened in what he felt was unnecessary brutality against a suspect.

From her research, Kuhlmann explains that despite not having arresting powers, CCID PSOs are instructed to “detain” suspects. Offences can range from breaking bylaws, such as unlicensed amplified noise or aggressive begging, to more serious incidences such as muggings or assault. PSOs should then summon their SAPS partners to proceed, if necessary, with arrest.

Kuhlmann is sceptical about whether this procedure is followed in reality. And regardless, she points out that PSOs have no lawful rights to detain people either. Her concerns may seem trivial, especially for the high climate of crime South Africans contend with. But she is wary of how vulnerable groups such as informal parking attendants, immigrants, the homeless and street children may be targeted in an otherwise worthwhile attempt to make public spaces safer.

The 2014 CCID annual report states that the Safety and Security division “made 2034 arrests, along with our law enforcement partners.” But Kuhlmann questions how many of these arrests resulted in legitimate charges. No charge was filed against the suspect that Mason-Jones tried to defend. “That seems to be the pattern,” Kuhlman says, “There was a study recently on how arrests have increased in the last couple of years that are simply used to intimidate people, but don’t to lead to charges or to court appearances.”

Coupled with this is the lack of accountability she believes the Safety and Security division possesses. In the case of Mason-Jones who believed PSOs did abuse their duties, she says that reporting the incident to the police was inconsequential due to the working relationship the CCID has with them. Unlike the police who have the Independent Police Investigative Directorate, Kuhlmann says there is no independent body to oversee complaints against the CCID. What resulted in Mason-Jones’ case, she relates, was an internal investigation, presumably held by CCID’s outsourced service provider Iliso who employ the PSOs, which was concluded with the PSOs’ simple denial of their actions.

To understand the CCID’s approach from the organisation’s perspective, I interviewed Carola Koblitz, the marketing and communications manager, on its behalf. Comparing Kuhlmann’s and Koblitz’s perspectives conveys the refracted lens through which city politics, plans and visions are perceived. Koblitz is passionate about the CCID’s role in creating a safer, more caring central city for all. This includes the central city’s marginalised members. “Every single person is a stakeholder,” she stresses, “irrespective of why they are here and what they are here to do. We consider them a part of our stakeholder community.”

Unlike conventional city improvement models in other parts of the world, the CCID is unique in that it incorporates a Social Development division which focuses on job creation and assisting the homeless.

One of Koblitz’s challenges is explaining to business and property owners who pay rates to the CCID “the difference between what they perceive to be criminal activity, and something they simply don’t like to see… if they complain about something, they expect our security staff to act on it. And therein lies the unbalance, the disconnect. It’s not a crime to be homeless. For that matter, it’s not even a crime to sleep in a doorway or to beg.”

Koblitz is also firm about what CCID PSOs can and cannot do. She admits the instruction for PSOs to “detain” suspects is vague, but she is also pragmatic: “We don’t just stand there and let [the suspect] run down the road.” She dismisses the lack of a rigorous, independent complaints procedure, especially one which is confined to the internal processes of Iliso, the CCID’s outsourced security company.

“We take [complaints] very seriously,” she says, “If a complaint comes through we immediately launch an investigation.” Koblitz says their results often find complainants mistook offenders as CCID PSOs (such as security guards from other companies), or they backtrack on their original accusations when they are asked to file an official grievance.

I talked to one homeless person in the central city, who preferred not to be named. He describes his opinion of CCID PSOs as neutral. Some PSOs have ordered him to move from certain benches or have told him off for trying to “make conversation” with other members of the public. He has also been discouraged from spending time in Greenmarket Square, a tourist attraction. “Their famous instruction is ‘Go to the [Grand] Parade,’ which is out of the eye,” he says. But over time he has established a rapport with many of the PSOs too. Like most humans operating within a system, their differing approaches “just depend on who they are.”

A parting comment by Koblitz has remained with me. She said someone once asked her if the CCID is ever thanked, rather than questioned, for their efforts. Beyond my agreeing or disagreeing with her, her remark exposes the contrasting perspectives that accompany systems, visions, bylaws and empirical experiences. As urban geographers Koch and Latham write, “Urban space is always defined by the collective negotiation of multiple claims on the space.” A vision shared by all three interviewees is indeed a “clean, safe and caring urban environment.” But perspectives on how this should materialise are multiple. Providing a mere top-up service for the central city’s diverse stakeholder community is no easy task for the CCID. But I hope its efforts continue to be both thanked and questioned, especially for those stakeholders whose needs are more complex than a safe walk from a car in the dark.


Megan Tennant is an editorial intern with UrbanAfrica.Net and has a background in English, film studies and urban geography. She is currently practising as an urban researcher, with recent involvement in projects focusing on township revitalisation and mother and child urban health. 

Photo credit: Discott.

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