In a shadowy room, up on the third floor of a 20-storey building somewhere at the end of a cul-de-sac in the Joburg city centre, a uniformed operator is sitting on a low rotating chair in front of three flat screens.
One of the screens can be used to pull up closed-circuit television footage of any ongoing incidents in the nerve centre of Joburg’s 24/7 surveillance operation, which has remained deliberately low-profile.
The operator, who gave her name only as Lydia, has a keyboard and a joystick to select and control images.
A phone on a desk buzzes, and she has a quiet, brief chat.
It is a supervisor watching one of Joburg’s busiest streets, alerting her to a man suspiciously walking behind three women he thinks she should keep an eye on.
The only sound is the crackle of police radios. She and her fellow operators listen intently so they can select a camera to monitor any incident that has been reported or flagged.
Shoulders hunched, she stares ahead, the glow of the screens reflected in her face.
She presses a couple of buttons, and slowly swivels a joystick on the desk in front of her.
Several streets away and about 3m above street level, a security camera mounted on a tall pole rotates inaudibly above the crowd.
The operator zooms in on a bustle of pedestrians on King George and Klein streets, and presses another button to record the picture in real time. “Not much going on here,” she says, but the camera still follows the target anyway.
The footage can be saved for up to three months in the CCTV control centre.
The man, meanwhile, continues along the street, pulling a cigarette from his socks and lighting it, almost certainly unaware that he has just been filmed, recorded and his image logged in real time – Big Brother style.
The operator tracks his every move now, following him down alleyways and across precincts.
For the past four years, the City of Joburg has been tracking and tracing criminals at large in the city centre using CCTV cameras mounted on poles – watching their every move, distinguishing suspects under surveillance from other people, even on a crowded street.
The dozens of the cameras have become the perfect watchmen.
Their eyes never blink, nor do they miss the dodgy individual loitering near the shop at midnight. If the police are looking for someone, the camera will find them easily, tracking their movements from Park Station to Carlton Centre.
Two weeks ago, at the corner of Bree and Joubert streets, two men arrived at a shop just after midnight, armed with a bolt cutter.
One of the men casually and brazenly walked to the shop and began cutting the locks as the other accomplice kept a watch on cars approaching.
The operator zoomed in on the scene, pulling the footage on to one of the smaller screens on the desk before calling on the supervisor for police response to be dispatched.
About 10 minutes later, the camera panned down to a patrol car with blue lights that had just pulled up and the robbers split up, walking slowly in different directions as they passed the arriving cops.
But soon after they turned the corner, they both started running down the street – oblivious that the CCTV cameras had now been logged on track and trace.
The 360º traverse covering every inch of the city followed their every step as supervisors in the control room guided police to them.
“We have been quite successful with our response time to incidents like this,”said chief superintended Richard Witte, regional commander of Joburg CCTV.
“We have had more pro-active measures to criminal incidents, such as smash-and-grabs, in the inner city.
“Taking criminals off the street and making streets safer – that’s what we are about.”
At the crime scene, officers were seen emerging from the vehicle and dashing after their suspects.
Two men later caught were profiled from the footage.
In a separate incident the same night, up in Braamfontein at the corner of Biccard and Smit streets, another business burglary was unfolding in full view of the blanket surveillance of Joburg’s city centre.
In real time, the operators watched it in the control centre and dispatched a police response team, made up of the Joburg metro police and the SAPS.
The robbers, whose vehicle was parked in front of a shop they were attempting to burgle, took off as soon as blue lights approached. A police chase ensued and the suspects arrested.
From her desk, operations manager of Joburg’s R42 million surveillance operation, Sheila Radebe, has seen it all, watching unedited footage of a range of crimes.
“The images you have lived through play over in your head, and we try to rotate the operators to get some of the scenes out their systems,” she said. “They (the operators) work two hours and rest for one hour throughout their shift.”
Throughout they are zooming in and out, scanning fights between teenagers and observing clandestine drug deals, car thefts, accidents and even attempted rapes.
“People need to realise that as soon as you step into this city, you are under surveillance,” Radebe said. “We have split our operators into different categories of what they should be watching for. Some focus on emergencies, such as motor vehicle accidents and traffic in general, while others watch out for petty crimes, like street muggings and smash and grab incidents.”
The city’s centre-wide surveillance camera system is run by Omega Risk Solutions, with dedicated response teams in support.
What has come to light has been a revelation, according to Witte.
“On average we make 10 to 15 arrests a week, ranging from petty crimes to serious ones,” he said. “There are still isolated cases of smash-and-grabs, but these have been reduced to one incident almost every two weeks, so this has been a success.”
Witte said the CCTV had become central to the crime-fighting arsenal in the Joburg city centre, helping police solve serious crimes including rape, robbery and car theft.
“When we respond to a crime, we ensure that we cover the suspect’s movements at the scene and outside the police station, so that we built a profile of that person,” he added. “If the same person is released and commits a similar crime, our cameras are able to show us that he is a repeat offender.”
Operators and police said the introduction of CCTV cameras not only had helped reduce crime in the Joburg CBD, it had also reduced the fear of it.
Witte said rather than relying on conflicting witness reports for conviction, criminals were being confronted with the evidence against them there and then, speeding up court cases.
Despite the apparent dullness of their job, there is an air of commitment among the uniformed operators inside the Rissik Street building, who keep their eyes fixed on the streets of the bustling city.
During their rest breaks, they play games, watch television and make phone calls from their cellphones – which are banned inside the control room to ensure that sensitive footage like rape is kept confidential.
“I love it,” said one of the operators, who is undergoing training on behaviour and risk profiling. “There’s nothing better than catching someone doing something wrong on camera.”
And, more importantly, so will the police.