JOHANNESBURG — Sitting on a patch of grass in front of the high walls of her employer’s house, Leah Mahlangu enjoys chatting with fellow domestic workers from the neighborhood, but when an unknown car or an unfamiliar face appears, the 62-year-old stops in mid-sentence, eyes peeled for any suspicious activity.
Mahlangu, who has been trained to fend off attackers and communicate tips to the police, is part of a strategy to stem the rising tide of house robberies that plagues affluent South Africa.
Homeowners have erected ever-higher walls topped with electric fences and razor wire, but the robbers get over. They install sophisticated alarm systems and employ armed patrols, but the thieves still get through. This new training program concentrates on maids and gardeners because they are often the first ones to face the criminals’ guns and they have the potential to play a leading role in crime prevention.
“It’s to help one another. It helps our neighbors,” Mahlangu said. “They don’t know that at the end of the day we save their lives.”
In 2001, shortly after being nearly strangled by intruders in her northern Johannesburg home, Penny Steyn, 61, took over Domestic Watch, an initiative started two years earlier to help servants prevent crime and protect themselves.
The maids and gardeners attend monthly one-hour sessions where they learn everything from criminal identification to self-defense methods. Starting in one suburb, Domestic Watch has spread to cover more than 14 affluent towns surrounding Johannesburg.
About 1,000 workers regularly attend the monthly meetings, where Steyn brings in guest speakers from private security companies and the police. “The most important thing that should happen in this country is for the communities to work with the police rather than against them,” Steyn said.
Overall, South Africa’s crime is declining — even though it remains shockingly high with an average of 50 murders a day — but some categories of aggravated robbery are increasing. House robberies, which involve an encounter between the perpetrators and their victims, jumped 13.5 percent during the year ended March 31, with 14,481 reported cases.
In addition to building higher walls, South Africa’s wealthy employ security guards. The private security industry is booming and generates about $5 billion in yearly revenue.
Not everyone is happy with the Domestic Watch program, though. Barbara Holtman, the leader of crime prevention research at the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research, criticizes the program for placing an unfair burden on the servants to protect their employers’ property. She said South African society would be better served by focusing on the root causes of crime — namely high unemployment, poor housing and education, and a huge income disparity.
Lucky Khumela, a police officer who initiated Domestic Watch in 1999, said domestic workers provide crucial information to police.
“We use them as the eyes and ears of the police,” he said. “They see and tell us.”
The program serves another purpose. Most house robberies use inside information often provided — voluntarily or not — by domestic workers. At Domestic Watch meetings Khumela instructs domestics how to avoid falling for criminals’ tricks to get access to the house.
Khumela said crime has dropped in areas where Domestic Watch is operating and the program could be expanded nationwide.
But most important, said Khumela, is that Domestic Watch empowers the servants. Khumela said he was pleased that participants have told him they escaped bodily harm and rape thanks to what they learned at Domestic Watch sessions.
“You need to take responsibility for your own safety,” he said. “It’s not about doing a favor to your employer.”