ARMY DEPLOYED IN GANG-HIT CAPE TOWN NEIGHBOURHOODS
By Cherolyn Amery
On Thursday afternoon [18 July], residents of gang-hit Cape Town neighbourhoods cheered and applauded from the pavement and leant out of the windows of their homes to record videos on their mobile phones as armoured military vehicles drove by in a long convoy. [The week before], Police Minister Bheki Cele announced that the South African National Defence Force (SANDF), as the country’s military is known, would be deployed to 10 of the port city’s murder hotspots for a period of around three months. He added that the deployment was an “extraordinary” measure to ensure public safety amid spiralling violent crime. (Aljazeera)
Why is the army being deployed in Cape Town?
The ‘Cape Flats’ – a widespread, lower-income area in the Cape Town municipality quite far removed from tourist ‘hotspots’ – are home to residents that are mostly black or mixed-race (known as ‘Coloured’ in South Africa) and who have long be struggling with violence, most of which is gang-related. The last two months, however, have seen a sudden uptick in violence in the Cape Flats and some township areas, for reasons unknown to officials. Reports indicate that there have been approximately 900 murders across the Cape Flats this year to date, and more than 1,800 across the Western Cape province in the same time period. During the weekend after it was announced that the army would be deployed, 43 people were murdered in Cape Town.
JP Smith, a mayoral committee official, said that the figures for this year are double those of last year’s, and Western Cape community safety MEC Albert Fritz described 2019 as “the worst year in history”. According to Fritz, gang-related violence is at the root of other socio-economic issues, “such as service delivery and the running of schools and clinics”. He also said that “it is not possible to invest in these communities if a culture of social anarchy exists.”
Underlying issues and possible solutions
In a report by Reuters, “deep-seated poverty” that authorities had failed to remedy in the aftermath of apartheid was mentioned as an underlying issue connected to violent crime, as well as high levels of unemployment and a drug culture in the gang areas. Don Pinnock, a criminologist at the University of Cape Town, told Reuters that there are approximately 350,000 children and adolescents on the streets in Cape Town, and because they are not in school or working, they are recruited by syndicates into drug distribution and violent gangsterism.
Christopher Clark, writing for Aljazeera, highlighted the challenge of South Africa’s under-resourced police force, which has “an estimated nationwide deficit of 62,000 police officers”. There are also imbalances in terms of where the police are located. For example, Clark reports that Nyanga (a township in Cape Town) has approximately 161 police officers for every 100,000 residents, while Rondebosch (a higher income ‘white’ suburb) has 556 per 100,000.
Clark also references widespread police corruption in the Cape Flats, where handguns are sold to gangs by police officers, various forms of protection are offered to criminal networks, and trust has been eroded among citizens. Another challenge is that many gang members in the Cape Flats are “socially embedded” in their communities, making law enforcement measures more difficult.
Mark Shaw and Simone Haysom, both from the Global Initiative against Transnational Organised Crime, wrote in an article on News24 about the “ecosystem” of gangsterism and how various interwoven elements of this system all need to be addressed in order for real progress to be made. One such issue is the fact that in the current system, drug users are prosecuted more than the leading ‘kingpins’ who drive the drug syndicates. Shaw and Haysom suggest that added emphasis on health systems and intervention programmes would be more beneficial, as well as shifting the “emphasis of policing” towards drug vendors rather than drug users.
In terms of recruitment, Shaw and Haysom say that “recruits are attracted to gangs because they offer an alternative to a reality characterised by high unemployment, marginalisation and lack of meaning.” As a counter to this, they recommend intentional investment in programmes that draw young people into “legitimate activities” that are “as formative as gang initiation and participation” but which “induct them into pro-social ways of participating in society”. Shaw and Haysom also address the need to remove the “means of violence”, saying that while there are various weapons that can be used violently, guns allow more distance and cause wider collateral damage.
For some people, the army’s deployment has been welcomed as a positive step forward. Others, however, argue that the army will not solve the root issues in the long-term. Laetitia Olivier, a lecturer at the Department for strategic studies at Stellenbosch University, described the move as “too little too late”, and “sticking a band aid on a festering wound”. Shaw and Haysom echo this, saying that the army will not be addressing the critical social issues involved.
There is, however, a positive aspect to the army getting involved. Shaw and Haysom write that much of gangsterism is “symbolic” (such as tattoos, murals, clothing, public gunfights and the manner in which people are killed), and the army deployment could in itself be a “successful use of symbolic power”. While it may not be “tactically or strategically useful”, it does indicate government intention to “spend resources to win legitimate rule over these communities”. The army can be seen as a “visual representation” of political priorities, which could bolster morale and programmes in affected communities. Olivier also says that a positive aspect of the army deployment is that it could generate debates on the matter, and increased discussions of possible alternatives.
FROM A CHRISTIAN PERSPECTIVE
Such discussions have been taking place in some churches in Cape Town in the wake of the army deployment, with some Christian leaders asking how the Church can be more involved in these areas where there is such need. Getting involved would unquestionably involve some risk, as the areas that have the most need are probably the least ‘safe’, but some pastors are stepping up and saying that this is where the Lord would want His people.
Analysts seem to be in agreement that the army will not come close to addressing the underlying ‘heart’ issues – marginalisation, youth vulnerability and disengagement, community fear and disillusionment, and poorer levels of education – and these are all areas where the Church can play a role. With much prayer for wisdom and guidance, this could be a huge opportunity for Kingdom growth among those who live just beyond the ‘borders’ of Cape Town’s more resourced churches.
- For the army and police to be effective in reestablishing law and order
- For the Church in the region to provide constructive opportunities for the young people
- For believers to reach out to affected communities with Christ’s love and practical assistance