The Bethlehem Operational Centre is a shining example of how good communication between farmers and the South Africa Police Service (SAPS) can work to the advantage of a rural community. The centre currently provides safety services as well as assistance during fires to about 400 farmers, who are all members of Free State Agriculture. The region served covers 320 000 ha and includes the areas of Clarens, Bethlehem, Fouriesburg, Daniëlsrus, Paul Roux, Kestell, Kaallaagte and Slabberts. Fast communication with all the relevant role players during a crisis is the main function of the centre. “Should a farm attack occur, a sms goes out to all the relevant managers and cluster commanders of the Police, ambulance services and other farmers in the area,” says Herkie Viljoen, chairperson of the committee for safety at the Bethlehem district farmers union.
The chosen leaders of every local farmers union knows exactly what is expected of him or her during a crisis, and everyone has their own task to fulfil. Some of the farmers will help on the farm, while others may assist the Police to patrol the area if the suspects fled the scene. Five personnel have been appointed to ensure the centre is operational 24 hours a day. The centre is a non-profit organisation, and salaries are paid out of the yearly R800 membership fee for farmers. The fee is also used to provide services when fires occur.
The system used by the centre, which was started in 1997, is another source of their success. The design originated while the commando system was still in use, and the centre decided not to try and re-design the wheel, but to work with what already exists. The Police hosts a monthly meeting at the centre with all the chairpersons for safety of local farmer unions, police officers and emergency service staff present. Problems in the region are discussed, and problem areas which may need more intensified attention, are identified.
Viljoen says the basis of the centre’s success is a good relationship with the Police. The number of incidents in the region have decreased, and this is believed to be a result of proper reaction on incidents. “Our strong point is a good relationship with the Police. You can have many different options to ensure the safety of rural communities, but in the end you will have to talk to a Police official – we reckon you should do that from the start.” Meetings are also held after incidents, so that the whole team can reflect on what was done correctly, and what should change in future. “We can be very successful with safety in the Free State if we take the ‘me’ out of the system, and focus on the ‘we’. It is about a need which exists, and should be addressed while the process is managed,” says Viljoen. “Another important aspect is the mutual respect that exists between us and the Police,” according to Chris Helm, chairperson of the Bethlehem district farmers union.
Another service which they provide is to follow up on outstanding cases which a farmer have might at the Police. A questionnaire has been compiled in cooperation with the Police in terms of stock theft cases, among other. The enquiry is send to the relevant commanders, who can follow up on the cases and give feedback to the centre and farmer.
After many such requests, the service is now also open for use by the people living in towns in the region for a yearly fee. Those who are interested, can contact the centre at 058 303 8011.
For media inquiries, contact:
Chris Helm – 082 928 8924
Herkie Viljoen – 082 766 5862
Charl Genis – chairperson of the fire association – 082 774 4539
Alani Janeke – 051 444 4609 of 083 301 9813