ESTABLISHED in 2007, the 10111 emergency call centre number was meant to bridge the gap between victims of crime and the police, and ensure fast and efficient response from law enforcement and emergency services.
With the main Command Centre operated from Midrand in Gauteng and built at a cost of R600 million, the system operates a toll-free number to call from any landline, and which charges minimum tariffs when called from a cellphone.
It was established to bring a sense of police visibility and trust in law enforcement and emergency personnel to communities.
But, over the years and despite promises to upgrade, adequately staff, and refurbish, it has elicited dissatisfaction from communities across the country, and complaints that they felt let them down at their most vulnerable, forcing many to depend either on private response services or illegal formations.
On the matter of holidays and the festive season which saw the country besieged by emergencies, one police officer from Pretoria, who requested anonymity for fear of reprisals, said: “There are times when communities turn to so-called mob justice, because, well, the calls do not reach us in time.”
She said there were periods when criminals went out and wreaked havoc in especially the more congested areas, and at that time the need for police increased. “But over the years, we have had to respond to people being beaten, burnt, even killed, by neighbours who grew tired of making the toll-free call, only to receive no response from police.”
And this was not only because officials at the centre were inundated with high volumes of calls, but also because they were so short-staffed that calls were dropped by the hundreds at a time as no one could answer on time.
“People have given up on calling 10111,” said the officer from the north of Pretoria. “Instead, people clubbed together to form security clusters, and when a crime is committed, they respond with violence. They beat, burn people and property, and kill criminals as they are under the impression that the police have no time to attend to their issues.“
This, she said, only added to the bad reputation police in less affluent areas and those who policed informal settlements had. “Yes, we are mostly short-staffed and often have no vehicles to respond immediately, but the failure by the service paints us in a worse colour than we are.”
When it was established, officials in government and law enforcement boasted that no fewer than 5 000 calls were answered by the call centre per month.
But within a year, the number of calls handled had dropped by over 30%, audits found, as crime rocketed and infrastructure at the centre broke down, not to be repaired or replaced.
From Pretoria, one community policing member, Loyiso Mothibela, said when they were introduced to the system in 2020, they were told they were to support what was an already struggling system.
In several meetings they were promised that millions were being put into the Command Centre to boost police response. “Because as community police, we are not equipped to fight some crime or carry certain weapons, but also, we can be injured or killed when we approach criminals, as these people have firearms and have no qualms using them.”
In the more affluent areas, private security has stepped in, and for a price they race around, maintaining visibility and stopping criminals from reigning. “We also take on emergency response and rush people to health centres, taking over one duty of 10111, which is to let ambulance services know to respond when someone needs them. This has become a multimillion business created by the government’s ineptitude,” said private Pretoria security officer William Russ.
On the back of that failure he said they had formed call centres for neighbourhood groups, paid for through common funds. They have smooth vehicles running all the time and are never short of trained, armed personnel.
“Once we get licensed there is nothing we cannot do, including collaborating with hospitals so that patient transportation is quick and efficient.”
This, said the commander of one East Rand police station, did not look too good for Minister of Police Bheki Cele, who he said always had “big words to say” when crime was discussed. “He tells us, when he comes through, to be harsh on crime or risk being fired, yet we sometimes sit around and receive no calls while criminals run rampant just outside our station.” Refusing to be named, he said there was no bigger frustration for police officers than being left to do nothing more than put up roadblocks, while they really wanted to protect communities from criminals.
“We sometimes pass personal numbers around because of the issue of calls not being answered at the Command Centre and phones not working at stations. This is something we are not supposed to do, but we have a responsibility.”
Early last year, Cele admitted that millions of calls were dropped every year, and only 40% of the required 10111 call centre personnel had been deployed over three years.
He told Parliament that the 10111 police call centres were meant to be staffed by 3 344 people, but as at April 2022 there were only 1 315 personnel.
An audit at the beginning of last year also revealed that close to seven million calls had been dropped across South Africa, as there were no staff to take them.
Nathi Mthethwa, when he was minister of police, had said the hotline formed part of transformation within the SAPS. He said: “It is aimed at changing the internal police environment and culture into a professional, representative, efficient, effective, transparent and accountable service.”
He called it a service which would uphold and protect the fundamental rights of citizens, while executing its mandate in accordance with the Constitution and the needs of the community.
But the crises had been deep and damaging even by the time the country entered the Covid-19 crisis, security expert Deon Snow said. He said this was a time when that service should have been at high performance.
“But no one really cares, our ministers have bodyguards – albeit taken from highly trained police sections, and they live in highly secure neighbourhoods. The less we say about Minister Cele and his understanding of how technology works, the better,” he said.
“The whole system required a whole overhaul, the involvement of highly trained security experts, and millions – or billions – for it to become the world-class response system it has the potential to be, to respond to crime and emergency across the country,” said Snow.
But this, he added, unfortunately needed, first and foremost, political will, of which from where he stood, there was none.