Sophiatown, a notorious area of Johannesburg, South Africa, has been known as a very dangerous place — especially for foreign visitors.
The street language in Sophiatown has a word to describe this neighbourhood: kofifi. This term means: ‘a place of darkness and despair.’ Alcohol-related assault has long been Sophiatown’s chief problem.
North Vancouver-based video producer Stuart Spani was in Sophiatown recently, and learned of a community-wide transformation — which, he believes, is a direct result of the deep Christian faith of several South Africans. Most notably, some of those Christians belong to Sophiatown’s police force.
“The crime rate in this area plummeted over the past two years,” says Spani, “and in the past six months major crimes have been drastically reduced.” God, he believes, “is doing something profound in this police station. Christianity is proving to be the answer.”
One of the more remarkable people Spani encountered was Michelle Pretorius. A 16-year veteran of the South African Police Services, she became senior superintendent in Sophiatown two years ago. Her precinct was classified as a ‘crackdown station,’ reflecting the exceptionally high crime rate — the second highest of 21 precincts in Johannesburg. Since Pretorius took charge, the crime rate in her area has dropped to the second lowest in the city. How did this happen?
Pretorius told Spani the key reason is that the majority of the police officers in Sophiatown are committed Christians.
“My vision for the police station,” she declared, “is obviously that every person here become born again, get to know the lord Jesus Christ, our personal saviour — also to have crime reduced down to zero.” Crime, she said, “is the result of sin, and God places us here to fight sin, not to fight crime.” This approach, she said, “is going to kill two birds with one stone.”
Pretorius added: “It’s also my vision that every person who comes in by that gate — complainant, suspect, no matter what he’s been charged with — that he must be touched here at the station, even our criminals.”
Hers is indeed a police station with a difference. Pretorius and her fellow officers have regular prayer meetings. There is a prayer room immediately under the holding cells, and everyone entering the department — both criminals and victims — is asked if they want prayer.
The station has a ’24-hour Prayer Watch,’ where members of the community come to pray for the police. Crime reports and the names of the police officers are posted in this room, and the prisoners in the cells can hear the prayers. People often drop in from the street to pray.
“Major crime is really coming down, and will be zero one of these days,” said Pretorius. Laughing, she added: “The National Police Commission will soon phone me to ask: ‘Sophiatown, you have no crime rate. What are you guys doing right out there?'”
“Something that never ceases to amaze and thrill me is how God uses very ordinary people to accomplish extraordinary things,” says Spani. As a case in point, he cites Amanda Pyper and Ria Van Rensburg.
“This dynamic duo teamed up shortly after Amanda accepted Christ and left the drug scene. The Holy Spirit directed them to set up a tent in one of the worst areas in crime-ridden Johannesburg, and to live in it for several weeks. Friends told them they were crazy, that they would be raped and murdered the first night.”
Despite these dire predictions, he says, “with the strong feeling that this initiative was from the Lord, they prayed for protection and moved into the tent. To everyone’s amazement, they were protected; and to this day, they are still preaching on the same site twice a week. A number of people have approached them and told them that they came to the tent with murder in their hearts — but that the tent was surrounded by a ring of fire, and they couldn’t get through.”
The two women, Spani adds, “took me to the site, a patch of grass about 100 x 100 metres. It was the end of the rainy season, and most of the grass was long. But in the centre the grass was short; this is where their tent had stood. Ria told me: ‘This is holy ground. The grass has never grown long, since we lived here several years ago!’
In addition to preaching outdoors in the neighbourhood twice a week, Pyper and Van Rensburg continually visit Sophiatown’s many apartment blocks and refugee camps, offering all types of assistance.
They have been instrumental in organizing committees which keep the neighbourhood free of garbage, and which report and prevent crime.
Through their 7 Trumpets Ministry, the two women have been key factors in opening a Christian coffee shop in the police station; organizing the teams who pray in the station; raising money from local businesses and individuals to purchase 15 bicycles for the police; and spearheading an ‘Adopt a Cop’ campaign, which encourages individuals or churches to choose individual police officers and constantly hold them up in prayer.
Van Rensburg believes a police station should be seen as a lighthouse in the community, where people can find more than solutions to their problems.
“Through the presence of God in the officers of the police force, we want them to find Jesus,” she said. “Prayer moves the hand of God, and God wants to shake this place.”
Convinced that a devout Christian police chief would make the crucial difference, Van Rensburg and Pyper prayed for three years that Pretorius would be placed in charge in Sophiatown.
The Christian Police Association (CPA), based in Wynberg, is also helping to make a difference in South Africa.
In a recent issue of the monthly Good News for the Police newsletter, CPA president Why Duvenhage wrote: “We have changed from a small fellowship into a dynamic Christian movement within the criminal justice world — not only in South Africa, but all over Africa and other parts of the world.
“Why is this happening? Because God has his focus on Africa, and is positioning Christian police officers to become a very significant partner in the revival process in our country and continent.”
Christian law enforcement personnel, he added, “are in the best position to be the aroma of Christ in the broken world of crime and violence . . . This is what we are called for, to change our communities as godly ordained police officers, not only by spreading his word, but especially by policing in a godly manner with godly integrity.”
Duvenhage cited a particularly memorable sight at the most recent CPA national congress. “I had a glimpse of heaven! I was looking through the raised and praising hands of saved police officers (CPA members singing ‘How Great Thou Art’) to the person on the stage.
“He was leading the worship — as an ex-gang leader who spent more than 12 years in prison. But he was renewed by Christ, and transformed into a new person through the Spirit of the living God. Saved police officers and a saved criminal, joining hearts in praising the God who renewed and restored them. This is a reflection of heaven.”
CPA coordinator Fanie Van Vuuren told Spani that he shares Duvenhage’s conviction that a revival will start in the South African Police Service and then sweep around the world.
“Jesus saved the criminal on the cross first,” he said, “and we want to let the police share the gospel with the criminals — because this is the only way to fight the crime battle.”
And victory in this particular battle may indeed be coming. Just before BCCN went to press, Spani received an email from Colleen Hawes, president of the Association for Prevention of Crime in Johannesburg.
Hawes wrote: “Update: the gangs in the surrounding areas to Sohpiatown station met at a braai (barbecue) arranged by Amanda, as they had approached her for help to stop fighting. They are asking for help, thank you Lord. She said it went very well, and the gangs are talking to each other.”