“Mummy, when I close my eyes, I see that man’s face”. These are the words of an eight-year-old girl from Manenberg, whom GroundUp recently reported had witnessed a man being shot. The killing is reported to have been gang related.

The report by Barbara Maregele, writing for GroundUp, tells of a community, Manenberg, being traumatised by the scourge of gang violence. The experience of that young child, scarred now for life, tells of a daily familiarity with violence with which our people must live.

Programmes involving after school activities are having to be cancelled. Extra-mural activities, some would argue the very mechanism that deters youths from getting involved in gangs, are being halted. Places of learning, schools, the gateway to socio-economic freedom, are becoming battlefields of rival gangs. 

Maregele went on to quote Brigadier Enolium Joseph, station commander of Manenberg police station, who relayed how traumatised young people are in the area. The community knows who the perpetrators of the violence are and in addition, amid a decaying socio-economic situation in the area, gangs are a “life source”. They feed families, they provide security and they offer financial benefits. Ironically, the very spring of the pseudo-relief, drugs, is the very source of the conflict.

The People’s Post, a community newspaper, reported that on one weekend of the 15th to the 18th of September, three people were gunned down in Manenberg alone. Too many articles simply quote statistics without real and meaningful engagement on what is at the centre of all this violence. Gangs, crime and drugs have become part of the socio-economic fabric of the Western Cape.

In March this year, GroundUp reporting from the South African Human Rights Commission dialogue in Uitsig, Elsies River, wrote how Jacqualine Hoorn, a representative from the National Institute for Crime Prevention and the Reintegration of Offenders (NICRO), highlighted that often on the Cape Flats gangsterism was a “family norm”. Generations of families were born into gangsterism.

At this dialogue too, the representative from the South African Police Service (SAPS), Major-General Felix Mbeki, also pointed out that while the police may throw resources at this scourge, it was ultimately a community issue; a family issue. Mbeki emphasized that those who were the gangsters, committing crime and perpetrating the violence were members from the community, were also children from the community. 

Speaking at a Youth Day rally this year, Deputy-Police Minister, Bonagni Mkongi, pointed out that it was the community themselves that often supported the work of criminals. People in the community would buy goods known to be stolen from others or taken during a robbery. The deputy-minister stressed the link between members of the community being enablers for criminals to carry out their thuggish ways and the escalation in violence and crime in the very same communities.

A few weeks ago, the deputy-minister briefed parliament on his department’s plan to combat gang violence on the Cape Flats. He pointed out that often police leadership and criminal activities by the police, for example weapon theft, compounded the fight against gangsterism and drugs but that it was ultimately the community itself that had to take responsibility and work with the police to defeat gangsterism.

Yet it is not that simple. Whether we like it or not gangsterism has become part of the fabric of our communities on the Flats. As Brigadier Joseph explained gangsterism often offers a way out of socio-economic struggles. Gangs offer support mechanisms for social factors such as belonging and for economic factors such as financial assistance.

In other words, gangs are filling the vacuum left by a role that civil society should be playing within our communities. They offer developmental opportunities, though horribly skewed, that are short term and unsustainable but which our people use in order to survive.

What we have yet to discover is the real economies of the townships. In Gauteng, for example, the provincial government is investing much into boosting what they have termed the ‘township economy’. However, where these programmes often fall short is that they present quick fixes and therefore concentrate on economic investment only. Albeit important, concentrating on the economic investment only does not address issues of belonging and other social factors which are equally important for human development.

As a result, government must work with civil society, sports clubs, churches, cultural clubs such as the minstrels, in order to tackle the institution of gangsterism. The deputy-minister will be shooting himself in the foot, if he thought that he could adopt the same approach like the City of Cape Town does and dismiss gangsterism, drugs and crime on the Cape Flats as a mere security issue.

In fact, it is a social security issue and an economic security issue. 

We must declare, as the Labour Party in the UK did in 1997, that we must be equally tough on crime as we are on the causes of crime. Social grants for children, for example, must ensure that children are in school and that teachers themselves are teaching for eight hours. Communities must work with schools to ensure that teachers and learners are equally safe. Schools must be places of safety and the Department of Education must create such an environment in our schools.

Put differently, whilst it is important to challenge communities and civil society in communities to act against gangsterism, government must support these communities through a multi-pronged approach. Unless there is deep political will, where political parties across the political divide can unite in our townships to fight these low scale wars then divide and rule by the gangs will continue.

This issue must not be used to score cheap political points. If political parties can take the lead in fighting this challenge, the people of the Western Cape will be able to see which political party really cares about them.

Hardly two decades ago, South Africa faced the HIV/AIDS pandemic and millions of people died. Today, HIV/AIDS has not been eradicated but it is under control. The situation is what it is today not only because of the wide spread distribution of ARV’s but also because society, not only government, took a multi-pronged approach.

What was thought to be a devastating and unconquerable situation, like apartheid before it, was nearly defeated completed. As a society we took responsibility and we educated each other. HIV/AIDS was no longer a race issue, class issue or gender issue, it became a societal issue.

This is what is needed today on the Cape Flats. Gangsterism, drugs and crime can no longer be relegated to being only a problem of our townships. When Nyanga is declared the murder capital of South Africa, the whole of Cape Town and the Western Cape suffers the reputational damage. When the people in the suburbs, supported by the City of Cape Town and the provincial government, dismiss this issue to being a problem of the Cape Flats, in the long term they affect their own fortunes.

Clearly, the people of the Cape Flats lack leadership from the City and the province in tackling this issue. It is time that they themselves start doing something about it.      

Buyile Sangolekhaya Matiwane is Provincial Chairperson of SASCO in the Western Cape 

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