During the 2010 FIFA World Cup in South Africa, the vuvuzela — a long, colorful plastic trumpet — gained international fame for the way it filled stadiums with a loud, buzzing sound of fan support.
Nearly a decade later, the instrument has taken on a new purpose in a country rife with violent crime.
It is being used to alert women in Soweto, the country’s largest township, that their local patrol group is ready to safely escort them to public transport.
“I wake up feeling safe when I hear the vuvuzela outside,” said Zanele Thusi, a domestic worker, walking toward the train station at 4:30am for her hour-long journey to the Johannesburg suburb of Bosmont.
“We could not walk safely in the streets before these patrollers. We would have our cellphones stolen, we would hear of stabbings and daily incidences of crime,” Thusi said.
South Africa has been making headlines as its citizens have taken to the streets to protest the lack of public safety, especially for women, who are frequently murdered, kidnapped and raped, according to women’s rights groups.
About 3,000 women in South Africa were murdered last year — or one every three hours — which is more than five times higher than the global average, WHO data showed.
Female commuters living in Mofolo North and Dobsonville, two neighborhoods in Soweto, said that a walk in the dark to the nearest bus, train or taxi station was seen as taking a necessary risk.
However, on a recent morning, before the sun had even risen over Soweto, a symphony of vuvuzelas was heard echoing between different neighborhoods as people began to trickle out of their homes.
The patrollers, who said there are thousands of them working in groups ranging from three to 15 members across Soweto, meet women at their homes to walk them to their train or bus station, blowing their vuvuzelas to announce their arrival.
To prevent perpetrators abusing the service by tricking women into thinking they are part of the patrol, the real patrollers schedule their pickup times with the women they are escorting.
Some carry golf clubs, Tasers, batons and whips for added protection.
Starting as early at 2:30am until about 7am, the men patrol until the women have safely begun their commutes and then return to collect them in the early evening.
“These patrollers, we love them,” said Jane Chabangu of the Commission for Conciliation, Mediation and Arbitration, a labor dispute resolution body.
“When I hear the vuvuzela, I think: ‘Here comes safety.’ And they do it for free,” she said, before hopping on the bus to her early-morning workout.
Bheki Mahlalela, 50, has patrolled the streets of Soweto for the past five years trying to reduce crime and make people feel safer.
“I would feel guilty if I didn’t do anything to help,” Mahlalela said.
Mahlalela said he first noticed patrollers about 15 years ago across Soweto, but he is not sure who started them or who first introduced the vuvuzela.
It was simply a trend that spread as the need for safer commutes increased, he said.
Originally, there were 15 men who patrolled the streets in Mofolo North, on a voluntary basis, but doing the job without pay frustrated most of them, Mahlalela said.
Today, only two other men patrol the neighborhood with him. They occasionally receive donations for their work, but mostly they do it for free. None of the three has been able to find formal employment.
Still, the men say stopping their patrols is not an option — even if it means putting themselves at risk to keep women safe.
If they come across a criminal trying to rob someone, they perform a citizen’s arrest, sometimes tying up the criminal until the police arrive, the patrollers said.
“We are afraid to do it, but we cannot rely on the police who rarely patrol,” said 35-year-old David Baloyi, a patroller from Dobsonville. “When we hand over criminals to them, we see the same guys back on the street the next day.”
A similar sentiment was expressed by a dozen other patrollers and commuters who were interviewed.
According to official statistics, South Africa saw an 11 percent increase in murders of women between 2017 and last year.
Brigadier Mathapelo Peters, a spokesperson for the Gauteng police service, which covers Johannesburg, said the police would need more information before responding to complaints that they are not doing enough.
“The work of the community patrollers has proven to yield positive results [such as] noticeable reduction in crimes such as common robberies,” she said via WhatsApp.
The patrols are a welcome male-led initiative in the movement to end gender-based violence, which has so far predominantly been steered by women, said gender activist Mandisa Khanyile, founder of the Johannesburg rights group Rise Up Against Gender-based Violence.
“I wish we lived in a society where women were able to walk freely in the streets, but in the absence of this, [the patrols are] an awesome, meaningful, tangible move by men who are taking responsibility for the scourge of gender-based violence in South Africa,” she said in a telephone interview.
Fewer than three in 10 women feel safe walking at night, according to the 2017 Women, Peace and Security Index measuring safety in 153 countries.
Following protests, South African President Cyril Ramaphosa last month announced a five-point plan to tackle violence against women, including media campaigns, strengthening the criminal justice system, and providing training for healthcare workers and counselors.
As South Africans await the rollout of the plan, the patrollers of Soweto continue to rise before the sun, armed with their vuvuzelas.
“About 5 percent of people complain about the noise, saying we wake them up too early, but the rest, they say it reminds them that we are here and that, for now at least, they are safe,” said Isaac Makhubo of the Mofolo patrollers as he strolled back to his house with the sun rising over the rooftops.
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