Could a smartphone app really help combat crime in SA?

Digital Content

South Africa has a brutal crime problem and it affects everyone. The rapes and murders of teenage girls in Khayelitsha (one of Cape Town’s poorest areas) and Tokai (one of its wealthiest), bears witness to that fact.

In the face of such violence, it’s easy to feel helpless, but two concerned Capetonians believe that technology may help people feel safe again.

Sham Moodliar and Elizabeth Senger are putting together a 48-hour hackathon, aimed at building an app which connects people wanting to enjoy the outdoors safely, or even just walk from point A to B.

Called Hambasafe — Hamba means “go” in South Africa’s isiZulu and isiXhosa languages — the event hopes to bring together Android Developers, IOS Developers, SQL Developers, .Net Developers, Mobile UI designers, Testers and Analysts to create a purpose-built, open-source app within the 48-hour timeframe.

“The key is that this is a social initiative,” the event organisers say. “People care and this way they can work together to actually make a difference for the future. This is at the heart of the shift towards connected value creation. This is Silicon Cape after all, with some of the best skills and talented people. So right now there is an immediate need to address the social ills of not being able to enjoy outside freedoms. We are calling on Capetonians to please get involved and contribute your skills and knowledge to this initiative.”

Once built, the app will apparently be available across South Africa and will require users to go through validation processes such as a login and validating ID.

These security measures, Moodliar and Senger say, are to help ensure that access and participation is limited to authentic members. A user can then create an event such as: “I am going for a 10km run leaving from X, my pace is 6km per hour, anyone want to join me?”

Minimum numbers for an event can be set, other users will then be able to subscribe to the event (the organiser can approve or reject application), and all participants can see who is joining the run. If someone can no longer make the event, they remove themselves and the application notifies the rest of the participants so that you are not waiting for a participant.

Other key safety measures include the ability to provide positive reviews per runner, such as you’d find on Uber. Plus participants can also view each other’s social media profiles.

The event has attracted the support of South African Santam, which launched its own app — with a feature that allowed users to let their friends and family know where they were — in 2015. Workshop 17 at the V&A Waterfront has meanwhile come forward as a venue sponsor. People are onboard with this in other words.

But just how much of a difference could the app such as the one proposed by Moodliar and Senger really make?

A question of opportunity

One thing that bringing larger groups of people does do, is lessen criminal opportunity. A group of people is always a less enticing prospect than someone on their own. It cannot, however, completely remove that opportunity.

Had Franziska Blöchliger — the 16-year-old murdered in the Tokai Forest a week ago — not separated from her family, it’s likely that she would still be alive. But it’s also worth remembering that she was only apart from them for 25 minutes before she was reported missing, in a relatively open area with large numbers of people around. Small wonder then she felt safe enough to extend her family’s walk with a spontaneous solo run.

Then there’s Sinoxolo Mafevuka, the 19-year-old Khayelitsha teen whose body was found stuffed inside a communal toilet near her home. Mafevuka’s murder was particularly brutal, but like many South African women, she was forced to weigh up the dangers of traversing the hundred or so metres to the toilet in the middle of the night.

Faced with that urgent bodily need and the dangers attending it to it presents, how much support would someone get on an app like HambaSafe if they tried to organise a bathroom group in the early hours of the morning?

HambaSafe also won’t be able to address the motives for committing crime. In a country with a history like South Africa’s, no single piece of technology can do that. Nor, for that matter, can it address the means criminals have to commit crimes. It doesn’t really matter how large a group you’re running with; if you’re unarmed and a criminal has a gun, they have the advantage.

A step in the right direction

That’s not to say this bid to make South Africans feel safer is completely misguided. But a single app is never going to be cure-all for the country’s ills. It simply can’t be. If real change is going to happen, many more South Africans in the tech space need to be working on ways of improving the country.

Moodliar and Senger have taken an approach which will hopefully result in something positive and that’s got to be better than the exclusionary and racially charged suburban Facebook groups, which have previously been set up as a response to crime in an area.
Source: Memeburn