Mercy Brown-Luthango argues for thinking more innovatively and creatively about how to deal with gangs in Cape Town's violence-ravaged neighbourhoods

Words by ​Mercy Brown-Luthango | 04 Nov, 2019

It’s a place full of contradictions. Cape Town has many faces and multiple realities that somehow manage to uncomfortably co-exist. It is known for its natural beauty – magnificent coastlines, the majestic Table Mountain and incredible wealth – yet millions of residents live in precarious conditions in informal settlements and rickety backyard structures. Most of the city’s more than 400 informal settlements do not have essential services.

“The Mother City”, as Cape Town is known in South Africa, is also home to some of the most expensive real estate on the African continent. It is the most violent city in South Africa. The city is ranked 11th on the list of the most dangerous cities in the world, with a homicide rate of 66.36 per 100,000 residents. The 2018/2019 State of Urban Safety in South Africa report states that, of South Africa’s nine major cities, Cape Town claims the top spot for murder, robbery, and property-related crimes.

Violence and crime in Cape Town are spatially distributed, with interpersonal violence more prevalent on the Cape Flats: the low-income areas that lie south-east of the central business district. Property-related crime, on the other hand, is more commonplace in the city’s wealthier neighbourhoods, typically tucked snugly against Table Mountain.

On the Cape Flats, where the majority of the city’s poor live, residents are caught in a vicious intergenerational cycle of poverty, deprivation, inequality, and interpersonal violence.

Alcohol, drugs, and firearms are drivers of the high levels of crime and violence in Cape Town – and gangs contribute to the city’s staggering crime statistics. Gang violence across the city is rooted in its historical, socio-economic, and political context says criminologist Simon Howell. He has conducted extensive research on gangs and the associated drug trade in the city and argues that gangs are a response to the social isolation, powerlessness, and economic exclusion experienced by low-income communities.

The intensification of gang formation and activity in Cape Town can be traced back to the apartheid-era forced removals of people from areas like District Six, in the city centre, to the Cape Flats, on the city margins. This dislocation resulted in the destruction of informal home-based economic activity and led to the spatial marginalisation of these communities. Also, crucial social support networks in the form of extended families were destroyed.

There are about 30 significant gangs in Cape Town. Among the largest are the Americans, the 28s, the Mongrels, the Terrible Josters, and the Junky Funky Kids. The exact number of members is unknown. In 2013, a conservative estimate put numbers at just over 10,000.

Despite the acknowledgement of the underlying social, economic, and spatial drivers of violence, state responses to this and the war on gangs in Cape Town are still characterised by a security-driven policing mindset

Besides providing protection, access to opportunity, and a sense of belonging, it has been argued that gang affiliation and its associated activities, rituals, and symbols fulfil the need for a “rite of passage” that many adolescent boys desire. The post-1994 period was accompanied by an opening up of South Africa to the rest of the world. At the same time, it saw street gangs evolve in structure and nature into sophisticated crime syndicates. Their criminal activities diversified to include prostitution, the illegal abalone and crayfish trade, and protection rackets.

Despite the acknowledgement of the underlying social, economic, and spatial drivers of violence, state responses to this and the war on gangs in Cape Town are still characterised by a security-driven policing mindset.

The national government of South Africa, the Western Cape provincial government and the City of Cape Town seem to have run out of ideas on how to combat the persistent violence perpetrated on communities by the gangs. There is a failure to understand the multi-dimensional nature of the violence. The recent deployment of the South African army into the Cape Flats is unprecedented—and clear evidence of this failure. Whether or not deploying army members backed up by tanks is the appropriate response to the gang epidemic is one of the most topical debates in the city. Members of the military have not only been patrolling various parts of the Flats but have joined local police on raids to arrest gang members with outstanding warrants. They have retrieved contraband that includes drugs, guns, and stolen goods in the process.

Some residents have welcomed the move as a sign that the government is finally attempting to respond to the problem after years of doing nothing, but there is little consensus regarding the impact that army deployment will have in the long run. After a brief decline, the number of homicides has begun to tick upward again. This has reminded residents that the army deployment is temporary. Many are wondering what will happen after the military has left.

The violence experienced primarily by residents of the Cape Flats is multi-dimensional in its causes and manifestations. Attempts to tackle it will require integrated and holistic developmental approaches that address the complex factors that often produce and sustain it. Mitigation and prevention programmes should focus on interventions that break the intergenerational nature of the violence. Strategies should include addressing systemic drivers: improve the education system, implement employment programmes that focus on youth and put in place support structures for unemployed and out-of-school young people.

Targeted interventions in the built environment to create safer, quality living environments as well as improving the city’s spatial form to foster integration and access are also crucial. These interventions will not work on their own. They must be accompanied by a range of social and cultural programmes to foster a sense of self-worth and inclusion. They must build social cohesion and understanding across different communities.

An intergovernmental, cross-departmental, cross-sectoral approach and programme design is required—as well as the commitment of financial and other resources to implement these programmes at scale. The government claims to be committed to working in this integrated manner. In reality, implementation falls terribly short of this ideal.

It is crucial that the challenge - of both government and violence - is overcome if we are going to deal with the high levels of violence. Violence has had a devastating impact on the daily lives of the city’s poorest and most vulnerable and holds a mirror to South Africa as a whole. Addressing the scourge of gang and other violence now requires all levels of government and civil society to take a different approach and dump old ideas. New types of partnerships with communities will be required.

Thinking more innovatively and creatively about how to deal with gang violence rather than resorting to reactive, short-term interventions will be a long slog. It will be hard work. There are no quick fixes. Short-term thinking is not going to provide a sustainable solution to eradicating gang and other forms of violence. We need a relentless, multi-nodal assault directed at the root causes that drive and sustain violence

Mercy Brown-Luthango is a researcher based in Cape Town