By Douglas Carew

The City of Cape Town has declared war on graffiti vandals whose damage to public and private property has defaced the city and costs more than R5 million a year to clean up.

Anti-graffiti measures in a draft by-law include:

  • A 24-hour hotline for citizens to report vandals;

  • Hefty fines and even imprisonment for graffiti vandals and "taggers";

  • Penalties for businesses that sell spray paint to minors;

  • Confiscating the property of vandals, including cars and motorcycles;

  • Forcing vandals to clean graffiti off walls;

  • Action against owners who allow graffiti on their property; and

  • The appointment of a special team to remove graffiti and police the by-law.

    Councillor Jean-Pierre Smith, who is massing the forces to fight the war, introduced a motion in the unicity council last month calling for the establishment of a dedicated anti-graffiti unit.

    Studies across the world showed there was a direct correlation between the activity of graffiti vandals and other crime, said Smith, a fan of former mayor of New York, Rudolph Giuliani, who managed to clean up his city.

    "Removing paint from a wall reduces crime, because graffiti advertises that an area is not being policed, that lawlessness abounds and anything goes.

    "Remove it and you tell people that law and order reigns there and crime will not be tolerated. Generating respect for law and order, that's what I'm gunning for."

    "We want to score some successful convictions so that these vandals can measure the risk carried by their actions. At the moment there is no risk involved," said Smith.

    The proposed by-law would be enforced by the municipal courts, with penalties ranging from community service to fines of up to R2 000 and even imprisonment for repeat offenders.

    "Many people involved in graffiti vandalism come from poorer communities and do not have the money to pay fines. They could be sentenced to picking up litter on the Parade or having to wash graffiti off walls across the city," Smith said.

    The council was also looking into the possibility of confiscating the personal property, ranging from spray cans to vehicles, of those caught red-handed.

    "We are looking into the legality of being able to confiscate motorbikes or cars used in the committing of the crime," Smith said. "We also need to control access to spray paint, especially when it comes to the sale to minors."

    The by-law would also enable the council to take action against property owners who allowed graffiti on their property, or employed graffiti artists to promote goods or services.

    Businesses such as Metrorail would also be asked to remove graffiti on their property. "Metrorail property is in our city and will be susceptible to our by-law," Smith said. "We want to win back our railways, where now all commuters see is lawlessness."

    Besides the by-law and a dedicated team to enforce it and clean up the mess, Smith said the objective was to get the broader community to support the project.

    A 24-hour graffiti hotline would be a critical factor. If people saw vandals at work, they could phone the number to alert a rapid-response team of municipal and civic police.

    Besides monetary rewards for tip-offs, Smith said sensitising people to the social cost of graffiti would encourage support for the project.

    "Vandals need to remember that every time they damage property like street names and road signs they are screwing their own communities, because the money used to clean up their mess could have been used to upgrade their communities.

    "We spend millions cleaning off paint instead of building houses, play parks and other amenities."

    Graffiti artists would be invited to give their side of the story to the council and the plan was to get them to police one another, especially when it came to cracking down on those who simply spray their signatures across the city to claim "territory".

    "We will give genuine graffiti artists the opportunity to exhibit their work without having to run foul of the law," Smith said. "The city could provide specific walls of fame, like the existing one in Woodstock."

    Smith emphasised that before the proposed by-law became binding it would be advertised for public comment.

    The city's executive councillor for planning and the environment, Brian Watkyns, said he had an open mind on the issue and would like to hear the views of the public.

    "This is very much a community issue that we may be able to resolve without resorting to harsh measures," Watkyns said.