The government is unsure how to tackle the present plague of gang violence
Aug 11th 2012 | MANENBERG | from the print edition
THE Cape Flats are well named. The streets of Manenberg, one of their townships, are straight, level and dreary. On a wall outside a community centre lie twists of barbed wire. Inside children sit at a workshop run by the Children’s Radio Foundation, a charity.
They are well acquainted with the gangs that roam the area, reeling off their names: the Americans, the Hard Livings, the Junky Funky Kids. The children’s days and nights are studded with gunfire. When they hear shooting they turn down the television to gauge how close the bullets are—and stay indoors. Innocent people are often caught in the crossfire.
Gang violence in South Africa’s Western Cape province has reached such a pitch that in July Helen Zille, the provincial premier and head of the Democratic Alliance (DA), the national opposition, called for the army to be sent in. At least 23 people, including seven children, have been killed in the past five months.
Over the years gangs have spread throughout the country. But they are particularly virulent in the Western Cape. They first appeared as a result of the apartheid government’s forced removals of Cape Town’s coloureds, as South Africans of mixed race are called, from their old districts near the city centre to townships in the Cape Flats. Today the provincial government reckons around 130 gangs with 100,000 members operate in the Western Cape. Charles Goredama, an expert on organised crime at the Institute for Security Studies, thinks there are fewer, between 75 and 100 gangs, with perhaps 10,000 active members prepared to be violent.
In the past 20 years the gangs have become tied to drug trafficking. Cape Town has become a destination and a transit point. The South African Medical Research Council reckons the city is one of the country’s biggest drug markets. The number of drug-related crimes in the Western Cape—over 70,000 between April 2010 and March 2011—made it by far the most drug-prone province.
Ms Zille’s call for the army was controversial. Both Nathi Mthethwa, the minister of police, and Riah Phiyega, the new national police chief, are opposed. Jacob Zuma, South Africa’s president, has told them to investigate the situation and report back to him. Major-General Peter Jacobs, head of police operations in the Western Cape, says the army is not trained to deal with gangs. Ms Zille says she wants the army merely to patrol the streets of the worst areas to let the police get on with their work. She says that people in Lavender Hill want the troops, and that such areas have seen large drops in violence when the army has been sent in before.
The children in Manenberg laugh at the idea of calling in the police to fight the gangs. The police, they say, would be more likely to arrest harmless kids than the gangsters. Under Jackie Selebi, the previous head of the police who was found guilty of corruption in 2010, specialist police units to deal with gangs and drugs were disbanded. The police are not keen on units dedicated to special tasks. Mr Jacobs says the present system of focusing on specific threats as they arise works better.
Ms Zille disagrees. She says the campaign against drugs and gangs has floundered since special units were disbanded. Local-government officials say that even when witnesses report gang killings to the police, shoddy work by poorly trained officers means that magistrates often throw cases out of court. Mr Jacobs accepts there is some truth in such criticisms, but insists other factors are also at play.
The question of how to deal with the gangs has a political flavour. The Western Cape is the only province run by the DA, the main opposition to the African National Congress (ANC) that rules nationwide. The DA hopes to extend its territory in elections in 2014. If the army were sent in, it might bolster the DA’s criticisms of the national police and the government. The ANC says that, on the contrary, sending in the army would be further evidence that the DA is incapable of governing.
Ms Zille hopes that after-school clubs will help keep children out of gangs. She is consulting legal advisers to see if she can set up centres where drug addicts could get their fixes. But she knows that, in the long run, getting rid of gangs is a question of education and jobs. Only if angry young men have an incentive to work will they resist the appeal of gangs and the nasty, brutish and short life they offer.
Correction: The original version of this article wrongly named the Institute for Security Studies as the "Institute for Strategic Studies". This was corrected on August 10th 2012.