South Africa


The tectonic forces that triggered Cape Town’s eruption of violence

A South African National Defence Force (SANDF) military helicopter is seen during a training exercise outside the 35 Squadron airforce base in Belhar, Cape Town. The army has been in Cape Town to help police quell Gang Violence. Photo: Ashraf Hendricks/GroundUp

There were no mitigating circumstances for the killing of pregnant mother Sadieka Newman in Manenberg or the brutal murder of young horse rider Meghan Cremer in Philippi. Nor for the nearly 2,000 people killed in Cape Town’s gang warfare so far in 2019. Last weekend 47 people died of knife and gunshot wounds. But the situation does have a context. There’s no innocent landscape here.

Cape Town’s current violence is like a flare at the caldera of a volcano. The problem begins much deeper underground and the rumblings have been going on for a long time. To do anything meaningful towards the transformation of stricken communities, we need to first understand four tectonic forces that have built towards the recent ignition.

The growth of African cities

Africa was one of the last continents to urbanise but is now experiencing it at an unprecedented pace. And no cities are growing faster than those in sub-Saharan Africa. The continent’s population of roughly 1.1 billion is expected to double by 2050. More than 80% of that growth will occur in cities, especially informal settlements.

According to a study for the World Economic Forum, Africa’s turbocharged urbanisation is driven by several factors: natural expansion of births over deaths driven by Africa’s persistently high fertility rates, in-migration from rural areas and labour migration across borders.

While the average global urban population growth rate is 1.84% a year, in Abuja, Nigeria, it’s 6.2%, in Ouagadougo, Burkina Faso, 7.2%, while in Mbouda in Cameroon it’s 7.8%.

Africa’s youth population (15-24) is growing faster than any other region’s. Young people account for about 20% of the population, 40% of the workforce and 60% of the unemployed. Put all these factors together and it’s clear that many cities across Africa are brewing a combustible mix of risks.

It’s often claimed by politicians that, in numbers, Cape Town is the fastest growing city in South Africa, but this is not so. Johannesburg and Tshwane are growing faster. In terms of percentage growth, at 2.61% Cape Town is only 29th.

According to a 2016 survey, however, Cape Town has the highest number of shack dwellers – 223,000 or 17% of all households in the city – with one in five homes having five or more people.

Two final statistics are worth pondering: in Cape Town there are 2.3 million young people under the age of 34 – more than half the city’s population – and 322,130 have no more than primary education.

Rapid demographic growth requires many new schools, clinics, roads, water pipes, sewage treatment plants, electricity networks and waste disposal facilities. Unplanned population growth and pop-up informal housing can push infrastructure networks, distribution systems, urban management and policing beyond the tipping point, causing them to fail.

What we may be witnessing in Cape Town is an increasingly unmanageable social fabric, leading to rolling protests and creating conditions which favour crime and violence.

The growth of transnational criminal networks

Social and political disorganisation is the compost within which organised crime grows. And it’s not confined to poor neighbourhoods and tough streets.

In an insightful article called Killer Clowns published in The Guardian, the British journalist George Monbiot noted that, until quite recently, political leaders were dull bureaucrats where character was seen as a liability. Now we have preposterous exhibitionists like Donald Trump, Boris Johnson, Narendra Modi, Recep Erdogan, Viktor Orban and, until recently Jacob Zuma.

Why, Monbiot asks, do we suddenly have extravagant buffoons? Or to put it another way, why would capital wish to be represented by jesters?

His answer is that the super-wealthy have become oligarchs who, like organised crime, feed on disaster. As rules, institutions and democratic oversight implode, these oligarchs extend their power and wealth at our expense.

The political clowns offer distraction and deflection, soaking up media attention and channelling anger away from kleptocrats who often live offshore, bank in tax havens and fleece us. They are effectively citizens of nowhere.

What has this got to do with the Cape Flats? As the Zondo Commission has been hearing, there is synchrony between political confusion, corporate malfeasance, organised crime and social mayhem. They feed each other, especially when criminal justice systems are weak. In South Africa, conviction rates against arrests are around 5%.

Gang shoot-outs are the street-level manifestation of syndicates engaged in all manner of illicit markets, notably drugs, but also protection rackets, money laundering, corruption, cash-in-transit heists, prostitution, poaching and much more.

Young men with low education, poor prospects, identity issues, lousy anger management and a desire to belong are useful for a number of reasons.

Being adolescents they think they’re immortal so are brave, they’re easy to purchase and are entirely expendable. Jail is no deterrent; often it’s a badge of honour.

If the army happens to pick them off, well, too bad. There are thousands more waiting to carry a gun, sport the Number, get hold of a smartphone and a cool pair of shoes. More importantly, everyone focuses on the gangs, so nobody disturbs the syndicate bosses. Adolescent gun theatre and dead bodies are perfect smokescreen.

But why are young people getting involved in the first place? Answers lie in the nexus of urban disorder, organised crime and increasing dissolution of social systems, particularly family support systems.

Dissolution of the family

The history of a city is the story of its neighbourhoods. Organised communities have higher levels of formal and informal solidarity. There’s consensus on important values, often cohesion and interaction among neighbours.

Disorganised communities are generally unable to agree on common values or solve common problems and often live in fear. Contact crime across a city tends to cluster in such neighbourhoods, as does low income, high unemployment and raised levels of interpersonal conflict and stress.

The difference between the destroyed District Six and newer places like Manenberg and Lavender Hill, or the more recently developed Khayelitsha, is that the former was a community which held together and policed itself and the latter are, comparatively, socially disarrayed and organisationally unglued. Poverty is not just deprivation, it’s isolation and social confusedness.

In such neighbourhoods, power dynamics favour those who are prepared to exert social control through violence. Willingness to intervene and respond to criminal behaviour is reduced in the face of the growing power of gangs. By ruling the night in poor neighbourhoods, these groups reduce the possibility of positive neighbourhood activities.

The massive exercise in community destruction undertaken by the apartheid government, the failure of the current government to reduce poverty or prevent rapid squatter settlements and the division of the city between glitter and ghetto has resulted in massive social disorganisation of poorer neighbourhoods.

Despite the turnover of residents through time, these conditions persist and young unemployed people in “those kinds of places” continue to be seen as “those kinds of people”. They are labelled and treated that way to a point where many of them embody the definition and act accordingly, lashing out or wearing their situation as a badge of ironic resignation.

In these neighbourhoods, collective effectiveness declines, violence increases and other forces move into the power vacuum in an attempt to control, stabilise, disrupt or benefit. For these reasons, on the Cape Flats violence is among the highest in the world.

The impact of unwantedness

Love and care are what families are for, a survival instinct that pre-dates human existence. Having a mediator between a child’s temperament and the challenges of entering and mastering the world creates bonding. Infants who are securely attached generally become well-adjusted children, explorative adolescents and responsible parents.

However, statistics paint a disturbing picture. More than half of South African children report physical abuse by caregivers, teachers or relatives, 45% witness violence against a mother by her intimate partner and one in three young people experience sexual abuse. This teaches children that violence is normal if not a legitimate form of conflict resolution and expression of power.

The most disturbing statistic is that more than 60% of South African children live in homes without a father. This means that many young men have no role models to teach them the steps to manhood and respect for women. Many fathers – both absent and present – are unable to contribute to the financial maintenance of their children because they lack an income.

South African society threatens to emasculate, particularly, young men raised under these conditions. One way they can reclaim their masculinity is through violence against those with less status, most commonly children and intimate partners, but also other men.

They’re drawn to others like themselves who may be without empathy, sympathy and caring. They carry feelings of shame and anger which they generally hide with bravado and, often, violence.

Such youngsters struggle to find their place in the world. Pain and desolation drive their emotional selves into hibernation. According to psychologist James Garbarino, they suffer from toxic shame: “Fundamentally disgraced, intrinsically worthless and profoundly humiliated in their own skin, just for being themselves.”

Such youngsters have to develop social maps adapted to their unsupportive environment. They become hypersensitive to negative social cues and oblivious to positive ones. They develop aggressive behaviour to protect themselves and conclude that aggression is a way to get what they want.

They also want money, power and respect. These are things that organised crime is well-tuned to provide – at a steep price. Often the cost becomes their lives. DM

Dr Don Pinnock is an investigative journalist and a Research Fellow at the Centre of Criminology, UCT. He is the author of Gang Town (Tafelberg).


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