Sending in soldiers solves very little – as Cape Town’s track record shows

Manenberg, Cape Town, June 19, 2019. Photo: BRENTON GEACH/(Gallo)

Sending soldiers to the Cape Flats achieves little except enforced R’n’R for gangsters and criminals. The show of force of joint operations with the SAPS is just that – a show. The record in Cape Town shows how the underlying factors have remained unaddressed amid political blame-shifting and official indolence.

The South African National Defence Force (SANDF) was deployed in Manenberg, Cape Town, 21 years ago. Around 15kms from the pretty City Bowl and the luxurious Atlantic seaboard, a deadly conflict was under way across the Cape Flats between gangsters and Pagad, the anti-drug vigilantes, and between gangsters and other gangsters, that I reported on as a young reporter, then for Cape Talk.

On one of the first nights the SANDF were deployed to Manenberg I watched what unfolded into the early hours of the morning. Luckily it was in a branded car that provided some protection; onlookers knew I was a reporter, not a spook or spy. I returned several times over the next few weeks. The soldiers were polite, but firm. No shouting and skelling(berating) of residents like the police did.

Calm arrived in Manenberg. A curious calm. Young (gun)men disappeared. Older gang lieutenants and the bosses laid low, or vanished to other parts of Cape Town or even upcountry as residents quietly whispered about this one and that one. The gangsters were on an enforced holiday in 1998. The aunties relaxed in keeping an eye on the children playing outside in the streets, now safe. The uncles moved their klawerjas or checkers from the tiny, crowded front rooms of council flats into the streets. It was safe.

The calm held for as long as the soldiers were about. But the deployment was always going to be short-lived; the SANDF’s constitutional mandate is the protection of South Africa’s territorial integrity, an outward-looking security role. It’s the police who must ensure the safety and security of all who live in South Africa, or as Section 205(3) of the Constitution says: “to prevent, combat and investigate crime, to maintain public order, to protect and secure the inhabitants of the Republic and their property and to uphold and enforce the law”.

When the SANDF left, the calm unravelled – fast.

None of the institutions of governance had done what they needed to do; instead, they had used the chill in the gunfights to chill, themselves. And so council authority remained displaced and subjugated to that of the gangsters: it was bandiete who stopped council evictions and who provided money in times of hardship, of course, in return for keeping a stash at that home or the like.

Hard Livings gang boss Rashied Staggie more than once drove along Manenberg Avenue – the main thoroughfare is officially named without any hint of irony – dishing out hard cash in big notes. Die Hok, where his kring (gang leadership) met, was on council property, with a fancy underlit floor as it doubled up as a nightclub and bar.

I returned to Manenberg, usually, but not only, because another gang fight killed a youngster, or gangster, or bystanders. Efforts by community activists to put up after-school programmes, to show the youth different possibilities or to put up community anti-crime structures somehow never got official support, while on occasion sparking active opposition by officialdom. Meanwhile, the office politicking at the local SAPS station meant the police were navel gazing more often than not despite the dedication of some, leaving residents in the lurch.

Little has changed in Manenberg – over the years I returned there often, reporting on the gangs, Pagad and police, also for the Mail & Guardian– although the Thug Life mural along Manenberg Avenue faded fast with the decline of the Hard Livings gang and rise of others. From 2013 life got a little harder for residents of Manenberg, and nearby Gugulethu, after the provincial administration shut down the local GF Jooste Hospital.

In July 2019 the soldiers are coming to Philippi East amid proclamations of action, action action by Police Minister Bheki Cele. The deployment, on presidential permission, has come in the wake of the earlier killings of 13 people over two days.

It’s important to pause right here.

Police minister Bheki Cele spoke to the community in Phillippi and visited families of victims shot and killed in Philippi East over the weekend on July 08, 2019 in Cape Town, South Africa.  (Photo by Gallo Images/Brenton Geach)

When 18 people were killed over 17 days in September 2017 in Philippi East, saturation policing – sans soldiers then – unfolded with additional police deployed until April 2018 on ministerial orders. But that show of security forces’ kragdadigheid didn’t fundamentally resolve anything, as highlighted just 22 months later by the killings of 13 people over two days.

Between September 2017 and July 2019 in Philippi East, as in Manenberg 21 years earlier, despite the politicians’ promises, the stuff that’s meant to happen, didn’t happen – be that the social support interventions like upgrading public infrastructure and facilities, or ensuring Philippi East police station has a permanent boss.

Now the soldiers are coming in, again. And, again, saturation cordon-search-and-seizure operations are unfolding in what is effectively a local lockdown. Why anyone would think this time round it would be different remains a mystery. Like the definition of insanity, often attributed (but disputed) to Albert Einstein, as “doing the same thing over and over again, but expecting different results”.

The reality is that the SAPS is too afraid of what it needs to do – to get out of their offices and vehicles to patrol on foot in among the narrow spaces between shacks, where criminals, gangsters and violence haunt residents.

In other words, police, trained, with bullet-proof vests, helmets, pepper spray, batons and guns are unwilling to patrol between the shacks where women must walk at night because the only ablution facilities are communal pit latrines. As must anyone who gets up before dawn to catch public transport in the dark to get to work.

A plethora of official excuses have been proffered: lack of lighting, lack of CCTV cameras, inaccessibility of the informal settlement where policing would put the lives of police officials at risk.

Or maybe the SAPS simply are too arrogant. After all, the blue uniform comes with power as it symbolises society’s agreement that police hold the monopoly of legitimate use of physical force.

Yet the SAPS do not have guidelines, never mind standing orders, on how to police shacklands. Effectively, millions of residents in informal settlements across South Africa remain deprived of safety and security as the SAPS abrogates its constitutional responsibilities.

It’s not as though the SAPS couldn’t learn from police elsewhere in Africa, where they do police in between shacks in sprawling informal settlements, more often than not with significantly less gear than what’s available to the South African police.

In Accra, Ghana, a dedicated training centre teaches police how to police high-density urban environments; the police forces of Spain, Italy and France have done courses there as have those of several African countries. Closer to home within the Southern African Development Community (SADC), the SAPS could learn from the Kenyan police who walk through the shacklands of Kibera, Nairobi’s largest slum, where unemployment and poverty run deep.

But going the learning route would mean letting go of the love of shows of force and to accept that the SAPS is not a force, but a service that’s present and responsive to communities’ needs 24/7/365 – regardless of postcode and address.

In the headiness of politicians’ politicking and the inability of the SAPS generals to move away from knee-jerk displays of the kragdadigheid they mistake for effectiveness, it’s so much easier sending in soldiers.

And that’s what’s done then even though such deployment for saturation policing provides little other than temporary relief as the gangsters and criminals go on an enforced rest period – leaving that which gives rise to violence, crime and killings fundamentally unresolved. DM