Graffiti devalues communities

7th September 2010 By: Amy Witherden

On Sunday, July 18, while the Dabulamanzi Canoe Club was conducting a cleanup of Emmarentia dam, a graffiti "artist" was interrupted in the act of casually decorating the Emmarentia dam wall, equipped with a can of spray paint.

When questioned about what he was doing, the "artist" seemed unphased and continued with his work, while the Dabulamanzi member jotted down his number plate.

Graffiti has become a major problem in the Emmarentia area, as the Canoe Club's outer walls and signboards are "tagged" with the jagged initials of some unknown local delinquent, while the walls of the nearby mosque and Japanese school are defaced.

In most countries, the defacement of property without the owner's consent is considered vandalism, and vandalism is punishable by law as it costs government or individuals money to clean it up.

In South Africa, the problem seems to be impunity, as the law around graffiti is unclear.

A search on the City of Joburg's website came up with only fleeting mentions of graffiti:

* A 2003 by law states that there is a prohibition on graffiti on any structure relating to public roads.

* Section 16 of the City of Johannesburg's 2008 Public Art Policy, mentions an ‘Anti-Graffiti Rapid Response Unit' responsible for "the timeous removal of objectionable and unwarranted graffiti from key points".

* Section 17(1)(a) of the City of Johannesburg Metropolitan Municipality: Public Open Spaces By law states that "no person may within public open space ... deface, damage, destroy or remove any municipal property"

* Section 4.1.3. of the 2009 City of Johannesburg Metropolitan Municipality: 2010 FIFA World Cup South Africa By laws, states that

"no person shall write, paint, or by any other means, display pictures, signs, writing or symbols in the area of jurisdiction of the Municipality during the Competition which in the reasonable opinion of the Municipality amounts to graffiti."

What about outside of the World Cup?

The City of Cape Town recently drafted a ‘Graffiti By law', which clearly describes why graffiti is a problem:

"Graffiti can be environmentally offensive and constitute a public nuisance which, if not removed, spreads, with other properties then becoming the targets of graffiti and entire neighbourhoods being affected, making the City a less desirable place to visit and in which to live and work. Property and business values deteriorate, to the detriment of all."

Section B.2 of the Cape Town Graffiti by law declares the "existence of graffiti anywhere within its area of jurisdiction to be a public nuisance, which is subject to removal", and section C.3.1 says that any person that contravenes the by law "shall be guilty of an offence and liable on conviction to a penalty."

The Cape Town by law has been widely criticised by "graffiti artists" calling for the right to freedom of artistic expression to be upheld. But the municipality and its citizens must weigh the value of the right to freedom of expression against the right to private property and the public's right to enjoy clean, public spaces.

Maybe Johannesburg needs such a clear by law. However, the fact remains that any form of art that is practised on someone else's property (public or private) without permission may amount to vandalism and the perpetrator can be charged in terms of the Criminal Procedure Act.

The fact that graffiti is considered a minor offence and seldom punished, if the perpetrator is ever caught, is irrelevant.

Former New York mayor Rudy Giuliani managed to improve the state and safety of his city during his tenure, by implementing the "broken windows" theory, whereby the local government paid attention to small things that had previously been ignored, like graffiti. The theory states that monitoring and maintaining a city in a good condition may prevent further vandalism and an escalation into more serious crime.

An expert referred by the legal compliance department of the City of Joburg local government explains that the act of graffiti itself may not be illegal, but the place to which it is applied may make it illegal, if that place - wall, signboard, bridge - belongs to somebody else.

If Johannesburg is to maintain a positive image and work against the escalation of crime, then "petty" crimes like vandalism must be addressed before the environment of degradation and impunity worsens.

So what can aggrieved citizens who have painted over their walls too many times do?

In the South African Police Service's ‘Manual for Community Based Crime Prevention' under the heading ‘Image and infrastructure', it states that:

"Graffiti, garbage, broken windows and neglected yards create the impression that an area is unsafe and may mean that residents will be less interested in improving the area where they live."

It is up to residents to take care of their communities and report any illegal activity, large or small, to the police.

Residents should familiarise themselves with their nearest community safety structure, as these are usually affiliated and in contact with local police stations. The next step is to report incidents of vandalism by visiting their local police stations, or calling Crime Stop on 08600 10111.

It is often considered too much hassle to go to the police to report minor crimes, owing to the bureaucracy that one has to deal with. But keep in mind that the prevention of petty crimes is a significant step towards the prevention of major crimes.