The Cape Flats is currently enduring an intense period of gang violence, in which over 900 people have been murdered in the first half of the year and residents do not feel safe to eat standing up in their own homes, lest they be hit by crossfire.
After years of terrible violence in communities already under the strain of poverty and neglect, and a series of police blunders and crimes, the situation has whirled into a maelstrom. To many in the country, this might seem like simply an intensification of decades old “Cape Flats problems”. But the people of the Cape Flats are bearing the brunt of external illicit flows of drugs and guns that owe their potency to our most recent history. These are national failures — and nationwide problems – to which, we argue, there can only be national solutions.
For the last several years we have been speaking to a wide range of people about South Africa’s illicit economy – we have researched heroin routes, extortion, illegal gun markets, the taxi industry, and even the market for assassinations in South Africa. Our organisation runs an assassination database and a gang monitor, and is beginning to work with community organisations providing funding for grassroots activities to make neighbourhoods more resilient to organised crime.
In the process, we talk to people who suffer from, perpetrate, profit off, resist and investigate the type of violence that is occurring in Cape Town right now. We talk to community leaders, ordinary residents, drug users, policemen and women, gang soldiers and gang leaders.
We do this work as researchers – and also as citizens, with a concern for the impact that organised crime is having on democracy. We put these bona fides out there only to say that we do not claim to understand the reality of living in gang affected areas better than people who live there, but we are able to draw together a wide set of perspectives and information to put problems – and proposed solutions – into perspective.
Why has the violence reached such acute proportions?
A good starting point may be to offer one explanation as to why the violence has reached such acute proportions. Many commentators correctly identify social conditions in the Cape Flats as being important underlying causes. But the current surge in violence owes itself to both factors that arise inside the community and to those pushed upon it by the city’s illicit connections to the global economy. It is this combination of internal and external factors which intersect to drive high levels of violence, giving the situation echoes of Central American carnage.
At the community level, there are loosely four key motors of violence, which may appear local but rely on external inputs: Firstly, the power that gang culture has to entice an alienated, frightened and hopeless youth to join its ranks; secondly, the desire to control drug turf and the profits they generate, control of which then give gangs the power to buy guns, which are the third driver.
Lastly, territorial control, enforced by gun violence, generates further competition over extortion profits and money laundering opportunities from local businesses. We are wrong to think these conditions are confined to Cape Town. This same motor can also be found in neighbourhoods in Johannesburg, Durban and Nelson Mandela Bay. Recently we have found that there are direct connections between the gang structures in these cities, which means that these street-level organised crime groups have an increasingly nationwide reach.
However, the situation in Cape Town is particularly bad because there are more guns, more drug users and a bigger drug market, and these external flows interact with a large organised gang phenomenon, which has created a perfect storm. The Cape gangs have also undergone both processes which have destabilised existing patterns of control, hierarchy and patronage relationships for their top leadership.
Foot soldiers of something bigger
On the one hand there has been a degree of consolidation at the top around key individuals and networks – whose names are mostly in the public domain – who reap the bulk of the profits from citywide drug and extortion markets. It is worth remembering that the gangs that are in Manenberg, Hanover Park (or even Westbury) are just foot soldiers of something bigger, in which these figures play a crucial directing role. Mostly posing as legitimate businessmen, they have consolidated their power on the back of greater profits.
These profits have come from illicit drugs which have poured into South Africa’s shadow economy at higher volumes due to increased supply in the international market, and the growth of domestic illicit markets in extortion and other commodities such as cigarettes and minerals, which have gone unchecked.
These markets have been allowed to grow because law enforcement pressure on high-level criminal figures has plummeted, largely as policing functions have collapsed under years of politicisation and corruption.
The key individuals also drive the murder up through targeted killings – hits – intended to remove competition and halt investigations. Several, but not all, of the top organised crime figures live in Cape Town, and have direct business interests there, which also adds to the intensity of the city’s dynamics.
At the same, at the street level, there has been a fragmentation of the Cape Flats gangs, leading to a constant churn of territorial losses and gains, and new groups forming. This fragmentation has largely been driven by the delivery of at least 2000 handguns – sold by corrupt policemen – to the gangs, that occurred between 2010 and 2016.
The large concentration of guns in Cape Town empowered smaller gangs to challenge larger ones, and set off the current process of territorial churn. Lastly, external gun flows have also expanded the ability of the gangs to recruit and emboldened newcomers, as guns are a fast route to power.
Needless to say, these communities have endured years of high levels of violence as well as the highest rates of problematic drug use in the country – neither of which the government has done much about. Combined with the dire social and economic circumstances, which these communities share with other places, the state lacks legitimacy. This is a key obstacle to resolving the violence as it means the community is reluctant to cooperate with law enforcement (which is lethal to building proper intelligence) and it further fuels recruitment into gangs.
State intervention is crucial
These are thus several processes at play which intermesh and whose most visible result is dramatic violence. State intervention is crucial – the question is what shape it should take.
On Thursday we got some indication of the government’s line of thinking. President Cyril Ramaphosa made a dramatic decision: to send in the military to the Cape Flats.
The fact that some community organisations have called for this step is entirely understandable. The Cape Flats have exploded and people are living in an awful state of fear and grief. But one of the most difficult aspects of tackling organised crime is that enforcement is rife with dilemmas. Taking out “kingpins” may leave leadership vacuums that lead to more violence, as has been seen in Mexico. Cracking down on major routes may splinter them into dozens of smaller ones, as can be seen with the globalisation of heroin and cocaine routes.
Cracking down on the Cape Flats could send Cape gangsters packing for Durban – a phenomenon that was crucial to breaking the Italian mafia out of Sicily and spreading it across the country. This is not to say that enforcement can’t work – only that it is hard to get right, and easy to get wrong, and to point out that the government is currently operating without an overarching organised crime strategy.
Others have provided excellent comment on why the military is ill-suited to operate in an urban, civilian context, or addressing concerns about justice – e.g. the arrest and prosecution of criminal actors. We hope that the deployment does, nonetheless, provide some respite, and also that it is indeed short-lived, and followed by measures that aim to change the structural conditions that have created this situation, as political actors have promised it will be.
While the focus is now on the violence in Cape Town – and should be – when government moves on to addressing structural conditions, it must bear in mind that the situation on the Cape Flats is a symptom of its own broader failure to contain organised crime nationally.
After a disastrous decade for the criminal justice system, we have organised criminal networks that are more nationally (and internationally) connected than they have ever been before. Key people at the top operate with impunity, while police activity is focussed on lower level gang members who are also victims of this situation. The flow of guns and drugs that have enabled the current violence has entered communities from outside, due to corruption.
The systems that should have stopped, at least impeded, these phenomena have buckled under a wider process of misgovernment. To that extent, the focus on the state-response in the Western Cape is myopic.
And once the issue is considered a national problem, a host of additional solutions open up.
Author: Mark Shaw and Simone Haysom (Mark Shaw is the director of the Global Initiative against Transnational Organised Crime (GI TOC) and is working on a book about the illegal sale of state weapons to the South African underworld. Simone Haysom is a senior analyst at GI TOC and the author of The Last Words of Rowan du Preez: Murder and Conspiracy on the Cape Flats. )