Serious Concerns: Crime and Vandalism Rising as Historic Cemetery Becomes a Haven for Thieves | TBEN

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Vandalism and theft are still common in the Avalon cemetery, as thieves help themselves construct concrete palisade fences for a quick edge, leaving the graves vulnerable and exposed.

  • Theft and vandalism remain a threat at Avalon Cemetery in Soweto, where half of the fencing has been stolen.
  • The fencing along the N12 highway has been broken down and stolen and sold for scrap.
  • The thieves are said to be youths from Eldorado Park who built homes near the cemetery.

Parts of the sprawling Avalon Cemetery in Soweto are without a fence after thieves stole them to sell for scrap.

There is little left of fencing on the N12 side of the cemetery. The only things left standing are pillars with no palisade in between due to the vandalism and theft that still plagues the cemetery.

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Avalon is the largest cemetery in the country, with more than 300,000 graves spread over 172 acres.

It is also known as the final resting place for many South African heroes.

Tomb and headstone with ANC insignia

Opened in 1972 during the height of apartheid, Avalon Cemetery is the final resting place for many battle icons, such as Lilian Ngoyi and Helen Joseph.

TBEN PHOTO: Malaika Ditabo/TBEN

The fencing along the N12 highway has been broken down, destroyed and stolen in batches. The N12 fencing is not the only part that has been removed.

Significant gaps between fences can be seen around the cemetery, while many fence pillars have been broken into pieces and piled on the ground.

A warden at the cemetery claimed that many of the thieves were youths from Eldorado Park who built homes near the cemetery.

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He explained how the youths pull down the fencing and break it with a heavy hammer to gain access to the steel inside so they can sell it to scrap dealers.

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The guard said:

These fences are very heavy and require a lot of manpower, but they do it anyway because they want the steel that is in them so they can sell it.

The guard is one of 17 hired to patrol the cemetery during the day and night. He said five security guards were from a private company, while the rest were from the municipality.

He explained how five guards patrolled the yard daily with five dogs.

“We try to spread out as much as possible, but we all stay close to have a sense of backup. And at night we stay at the gate and guard the entrance,” he said.

The guard said he has been working as a security guard for almost a year and has identified primary areas as the hotspots for crime.

He said those hot spots — where some of the fencing had been destroyed — are close to Eldorado Park.

Unmarked headstone that has fallen over

Avalon Cemetery in Soweto – the largest in the country – has deteriorated over the years due to vandalism and theft.

TBEN Malaika Ditabo.

Grave with destroyed concrete slab cover

Red concrete slabs are stolen and destroyed for the steel found in them and sold to scrap dealers.

TBEN Malaika Ditabo.

According to the guard, crime and vandalism have prevailed without the fence, as many of the hotspots were occupied by youths, whom he claimed were drug users waiting for a target to rob.

“It’s easy for us to spot these criminals because we’ve been working here for so long. They always know not to try their tactics when we’re close, because we catch and arrest them.

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“But you should always be vigilant. They crawl up out of nowhere. Some even hide behind tombstones, and if you don’t pay attention, they attack you,” said the guard.

He said the youth are ruthless.

The guard explained:

I can’t tell you exactly what they are going for, but I know that when they come to you while you kneel and pray, depending on the weapon they have, they will point it at you and force you to put your personal items on the spot .

When the guard accompanied TBEN to the section of the cemetery where leaders like Joe Slovo, Charlotte Maxeke and Steve Biko were buried, he inspected each site for suspicious activity.

The drive to the section was filled with foot traffic as people made their way through the cemetery from Chiawelo to Klipspruit, paying little attention to the surrounding cemeteries.

Joe Slovo's Destroyed Tombstone Without Markings

Anti-apartheid struggle icon Joe Slovo’s tombstone, devoid of any recognizable markings.

TBEN PHOTO: Malaika Ditabo/TBEN

Upon arrival, TBEN was met by a bare Slovo headstone, missing its name and giving no acknowledgment to the battle icon buried there.

The guard explained that although people come every year to honor the former SACP and ANC leader and place flowers at his grave, the headstone has been stripped of its carvings.

Some surrounding graves were also damaged, and surrounded by rubbish.

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“Normally they steal the ledge because it’s made up of granite that can be sold at a high price as a kitchen countertop. Some even target the red concrete slabs for the steel found in it so they can sell it to scrap dealers R12 to R30 for each piece,” he explained.

Another security guard who participated told TBEN that criminals are desperate for quick money and will stop at nothing to get it.

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The guard said:

They can steal your phone, shoes or even glasses. People want money, and they will rob to get money.

According to Jenny Moodley, spokesman for Johannesburg City Parks and Zoo, community reports revealed that the fence was stolen by people illegally occupying spaces in the informal settlements near the cemetery, and others stole it for recycling.

The first was wire mesh fencing, which was later replaced by metal palisade fencing, which was also replaced by palisade concrete fencing, and now Clearview fencing, which has also proved unviable.

Digging in disarray next to broken fencing

Vandalism and theft continue to plague Avalon Cemetery as thieves steal concrete stockade fences, exposing the graves.

TBEN PHOTO: Alex Patrick/TBEN

Broken and crushed pieces of concrete fencing

It is alleged that thieves sell the steel wire from inside a concrete palisade fence to scrap dealers for as little as R12.

TBEN PHOTO: Alex Patrick/TBEN

Moodley said the city began its two-year project to install Clearview fences at Soweto’s Avalon Cemetery five years ago, hoping it would be a viable option and less likely to be recycled, but as the years expired, the project were turned out to be a failure.

She said the city plans to have a more eco-friendly option.

“Over the years we experimented with different fences, but none of them worked, so the only option is to go green,” Moodley said.

She said the city is looking into planting trees and making the cemetery greener and the project has already started in Brixton and Braamfontein, where it is being closely monitored.

“The trees there were planted over a year and a half ago and we’ve been monitoring this process to make sure the trees are a good hedge for what we plan to do,” said Moodley.