South Africa | Why Johannesburg's anti-crime cameras are similar to apartheid-era pass laws - expert

Joburg's new anti-crime cameras have been criticised.

Joburg's new anti-crime cameras have been criticised.


Johannesburg's anti-crime surveillance cameras can do a lot of damage, and can be even more destructive and exclusionary than South Africa's pass law system was, an expert has warned.

Michael Kwet, from Yale University, who researched Johannesburg's Safe City Initiative, on Tuesday told a webinar organised by the Southern African Institute of International Affairs "while there's a lot of hype, [the cameras] can do a lot of damage and they can be very destructive, and this was kind of like the pass law system in South Africa".

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He said there were parallels with the apartheid government regulating racial quotas, trying to "filter" people who were allowed in whites-only neighbourhoods. He said "great efficiency" wasn't really achieved because, during that time, the technology was "extraordinarily primitive" and difficult to maintain.

He said:

But, nevertheless, the pass law system was very destructive, and it was used as a justification to harass people, sometimes to torture them if they didn't have a pass or the authorities said they didn't have a pass. So it could wind up being something that does a lot of damage.

He said cameras were used on campuses during the Fees Must Fall protests to "target" students and leaders throwing stones at buildings.

"If they were looking at targeting the movement on campus, they could use the footage to target students, and they did," he said.

He said there was a "growing capacity" in using these systems; for example, Vumacam in 2019 announced that it would install 50 000 cameras, but soon after the company announced that it was looking at doubling this.


"If you look at how fast these systems have grown and how they have expanded in sophistication, there is actually good reason, from a civil rights and liberties perspective, to be very worried about the direction that this could go," he said.

"And it's not healthy, and it's not good to live in a filmed society, so going outside into an urban space, do you want that to be a filmed experience? I think the answer should be no."

He said there was no studies done with solid evidence, outside of anecdotal evidence by police authorities, that cameras are effective in helping to fight crime.

Cameras negatively affect civil liberties and freedoms, he said, and it does not address general problems people have with structural causes, such as poverty.

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Kwet said there is generally not enough access to information about these surveillance cameras.

While he commended the City of Johannesburg for providing him with the information he requested, he said this should have been in the City’s report in the first place.

"I shouldn't have to go and ask them which cameras they are using," he said.

He said China was more "in your face" when talking about their cameras and smart city initiatives, while western governments tried to be more discreet and appear more "caring".

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