The Johannesburg M2 is closed for maintenance from 28 February 2019 till further notice. Photo: SANDILE NDLOVU/Sowetan
The Johannesburg M2 is closed for maintenance from 28 February 2019 till further notice. Photo: SANDILE NDLOVU/Sowetan

Repair work on one of Johannesburg’s major highways has had an unexpected impact on SA’s major banks.

Lenders are stepping up security after the closure of parts of the M2 freeway diverted traffic through the CBD — already flooded with pedestrians, buses, street vendors and minibus taxis.

In a city that’s no stranger to crime, the snarl-ups made bank workers sitting ducks as thieves struck one car after the next, stealing whatever they can at gunpoint. To combat the thugs taking advantage of the gridlock, businesses are meeting weekly with city officials and metropolitan police who direct traffic and monitor crime hot-spots.

Undercover cops are also keeping watch, while the likes of Absa and FirstRand ’s FNB provide shuttle services for staff, let employees work from home, come in during off-peak times, or use satellite offices.

“Our ops centre reports regularly on the situation just to check it’s business as usual,” Absa’s acting CEO René van Wyk said. When the lender put more security in place, perpetrators would move further along, looking for weak spots, he said.

Guards armed with two-way radios and nightsticks now dot street corners and bridge crossings as far as 3km away from where the highway runs just south of the city centre. Some are clothed in Absa’s trademark red logo, while others stand watch in bright yellow or orange vests from other companies, including around Standard Bank’s offices.

The city centre — which also houses provincial government offices, universities, historical landmarks and the ANC’s head office — is also the scene of regular protests.

“Unfortunately, now and then, there are incidents of crime which our staff are not immune against,” said FNB CEO Jacques Celliers, whose firm has about 12,000 staff at its Bank City headquarters. “We have approximately 100 guards around our campus, and also partner with authorities to improve general safety, especially when there’s traffic congestion.”

Staying in the CBD

The banks are among a handful of companies, such as AngloGold Ashanti, to have stayed in the CBD after the end of apartheid. Other corporations moved north to buildings in suburbs such as Sandton, known as Africa’s richest square mile, Illovo or Midrand.

“Being in the Joburg CBD keeps us in close proximity to matters that the general public are passionate and concerned about,” said Celliers. “It’s not unbearable.”

Crime is down “significantly” to levels lower than before the highway was closed at the end of February because of the increased policing and improved traffic flow, said Johannesburg Metropolitan Police Department spokesperson Wayne Minnaar, without being able to be more specific.

“There have been 145 points identified as focus points where officers have been deployed in the morning peak and afternoon peak to help with the traffic.”

Johannesburg central police station has the highest reported cases of aggravated robbery in the country, at almost 2,000 incidents in the year up to end-March 2018, according to government data. The SA Police Service declined to provide the latest statistics for the precinct. The work is expected to be completed in October, the Johannesburg Roads Agency’s Siyabonga Genu said.

City officials and businesses are also looking into the use of drones to police the areas as a longer-term solution, Absa spokesperson Songezo Zibi said.

“Since stepping up our safety measures, we’ve seen a big decline in the number of incidents from several a week to only isolated ones now,” he said outside the bank’s headquarters, where building is underway on a residential, commercial and retail development. “Things have settled down.”