Our response to gang violence must be multi-pronged

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The South African National Defence Force (SANDF) has been tasked and authorised to deploy various SANDF elements to render assistance to the South African Police Services (SAPS) in the identified crime-ridden hotspots in the Western Cape. FILE PHOTO: Phando Jikelo / African News News Agency (ANA)

On 11 July 2019, Western Cape Premier Alan Winde, released a statement announcing that President Cyril Ramaphosa authorized the deployment of the South African National Defence Force (SANDF) to the worst affected crime areas in the province. The announcement was largely met with triumph following extended cries by community activists that the military be deployed to the Cape Flats as a force multiplier. 

Prior to entering areas beleaguered by gang violence, the SANDF would be briefed to understand their role as one meant to assist and support a severely under-resourced and under-capacitated police force, and not to engage in direct combat. But amidst the sighs of relief and renewed hopes for change, simmered vehement objections to the presence of the military in an already volatile context. Fears rooted in the memories of a complex and hostile relationship between civilians and the military, convinced many to understand that the presence of the SANDF could only exacerbate the violence and bloodshed.

Gangsterism in Cape Town has a long and contested genesis. It is a complex phenomenon that cannot be explained by a single theory, but is to be understood as a perverted combination of apartheid spatial planning, gross inequalities and deteriorating social structures. Prior to the destruction of District Six and the subsequent expulsion and social dislocation of a predominantly Coloured community, gangs had already begun to materialize in response to their social surroundings. Their response- previously understood as revolutionary and fundamentally anti-apartheid- metamorphosed and turned exceptionally violent when the Group Areas Act- a notorious cornerstone of apartheid- was conceived and enforced. Today, gangs and gangsterism wields significant power within the spaces they exist and remain a powerful actor within the ecosystem of their respective communities. In fact, concepts of ‘power’ versus ‘powerlessness’ and the distribution of power is integral to the sustentation of gangs; resource deprivation, marginalization, gender norms, belonging, etc. all contribute significantly to the creation and continuation of gangs within areas like the Cape Flats.

In a 2009 mini-documentary “I’m not Black, I’m Coloured- Identity Crisis at the Cape of Good Hope”, Coloured interviewees lamented their struggles with identity and belonging in South Africa, and claimed that in this present democratic dispensation, they were neither perceived as being White nor Black enough- a sentiment echoed in the commentary sections of social media, community social gatherings, and other dialogue spaces. 

Feelings of resentment and betrayal, aggravated by the continued neglect by both the national and provincial government, then asks questions of how citizenship is understood and/or reconfigured in South Africa, and how- if- citizenship is differentiated as opposed to being universally inclusive of all, as was promised by the post-apartheid government. And at the center of these questions is the glaring absence of the state and its multitude of apparatuses in townships, and the response of gangs as a cover for this vacuum of unrealised socio-economic rights. 

The magnitude of social power that gangs wield within their communities subsequently translates to these gangs being perceived as givers and takers of life, dignity, and power; community members themselves are frequently co-opted into the gang’s ecosystem (through joining ranks or keeping silent) and subsequently rendered less powerful. Feelings of powerlessness, marginalization and vulnerability within communities are compounded by a heavily militarized and reportedly complicit police force. 

Many communities have reported that they have lost confidence in the South African Police Services (SAPS); and in many areas of the Cape Flats groups of residents have taken on the task of community safety almost independently. However, low success rates, largely attributed to the inadequate resources and support, coupled with the strict parameters in which community safety activists must work, leads to feelings of deep frustration and distress for the future of the community and those who live therein. In the past, these aforementioned feelings have crescendoed in gruesome and vigilante violence as witnessed during the anti-gang operations of our early democracy, and spearheaded by People against Gangsterism and Drugs (PAGAD) in Manenberg; a bloody climax no one wants to return to.

The types and severity of violence witnessed and reported on in the Western Cape cannot be narrowed down to adolescent delinquency, or the shortcomings of an under-resourced and/or corrupt police force, but as a consequence of grievous underlying social and economic factors, most notably unemployment and poverty. The origins of gang activities in the urban townships are deeply rooted in socio-historical politics and policies that ultimately led to a socially, spatially, and economically unequal and fragmented Cape Town.

Frequently proposed solutions are characterised by their blanket recommendations, unfeasibility, and lack of detailed and analytical precision. The regurgitated panacea to Cape Town’s gang problem has been consistently framed within a punitive model: imprisonment. However, retributive justice alone is an ineffective mode of corrective action or behavioural reform, and often only succeeds in entrenching criminal behavior and further damaging already damaged people. 

It was reported that recidivism today is estimated to be at 90%. If we are to understand and effectively confront gangsterism then it is important that we contextualize gang activities within the socio-historical context of coloured townships, as well as within the cultural conceptions of gendered roles and personhood that have evolved within that space. We should look toward strengthening our existing rehabilitation programmes and ensure that these centres are accessible to all who require it. 

Community safety activists and patrollers must be supported and compensated for dangerous work they do voluntarily. The state at national, provincial and local level must honour the social contract it entered into with citizens through the installation of basic security measures, such as street lights. Lastly, our monitoring and evaluative frameworks must be multi-faceted and reflect the context in which it operates. The military- a state apparatus trained for war and not civilian policing- cannot ride the Cape Flats of gang violence.

*The racial composition of Cape Town is predominantly Coloured (and the author’s own racial category) hence the distinct focus on this racial group. It must be noted that crime, gangs, and gangsterism negatively affects and happens within predominantly Black communities (also part of the Cape Flats) as well.


Danielle Hoffmeester is a postgraduate student at the University of the Western Cape. Her areas of focus include Political Violence, Women and Gender Studies, and Critical Race Theory.