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From the Inside: Western Cape should be given the power to combat violent crime and gangs effectively

Helen Zille is Premier of the Western Cape. See her Wikipedia profile.

The State of Urban Safety Report, released in August by the SA Cities Network, should be required reading for policy-makers. It shows a sustained and substantial decrease in all crime categories (except robbery) throughout South Africa since 1994 – an exceptional achievement. However, since 2011, the tide seems to have turned, with several crime categories showing a small but sustained annual increase once more. This requires urgent analysis, especially in Cape Town, where the latest trends are particularly disturbing.

Although it covers all crime categories, the State of Urban Safety Report focuses specifically on murders, which are more reliably reported and recorded (for example in mortuaries) than any other crime. The recorded causes of death, therefore, provide a good proxy for analysing trends in violent crime.

The harsh truth arising out of this report is that Cape Town’s murder rate has increased by almost 40% in the past five years – far more than any other city. The big question is why – and what can be done about it?

A frequent explanation is that crime, including violent crime, is driven by poverty, inequality and unemployment. Counter-intuitively, the report concludes that Cape Town has the lowest level of poverty, the lowest level of inequality, and the second lowest youth unemployment of any city in the country. So this cannot be the explanation.

Instead the report argues that “an answer may lie in the disproportionate access to alcohol, drugs and firearms” in Cape Town, and concludes that policies to reduce crime should focus on these things.

This accords with our own experience. There is a direct correlation between substance abuse and crime in the Western Cape, especially violent crime. Alcohol abuse is still a bigger driver of violent crime than drugs, particularly when it comes to domestic violence. Compounding the problem is the fact that Cape Town’s decades-old gang culture has become almost synonymous with the drug trade, with opposing groups battling to extend or defend their “sales turf”. And there seems to be an endless supply of firearms that find their way into the hands of warring gangs (including weapons that originate from the police and military).

The correlation between alcohol, drugs and violence also means that crime is disproportionately high in areas where substance abuse is rife.

In fact, a mere 7% of police precincts in the Western Cape account for almost half of all murders. When these precincts are disaggregated from the crime statistics, the murder and violent crime rate falls dramatically, and becomes comparable to other major international cities.

This is no source of comfort to any of us, and especially not to the people living in the worst-affected areas. Understandably, they want the authorities to “do something” about the trauma they experience daily. These calls reached a crescendo in recent weeks when several events underscored the extent of the crisis:

  • On 18 August, Fadwaan Murphy, leader of the notorious Dixie Boys gang, was acquitted of 239 serious charges, and his seized assets returned to him. Being a multimillionaire with a fleet of luxury vehicles and several properties, he could afford the legal team he needed to beat the law. His acquittal was a brutal reminder of the very low conviction rate, a mere 3% in gang-related cases. Most of those in jail are awaiting trial for drug use, not drug dealing. The big fish almost always manage to dodge the law.
  • In the province’s “gang capital”, Manenberg, the City’s shot-spotter technology identified 100 different shooting incidents in one week.
  • And then, on 29 September, a killing spree in the notorious Marikana informal settlement (Philippi East) left 11 people dead in one gruesome night, as gang members sought vengeance against “vigilantes”.

The public frustration is entirely understandable. The question the Western Cape Provincial government must address is: What can we do to solve the problem?

The answer, unfortunately, is very little, due to the way our Constitution and the law apportion powers over policing (and the criminal justice system in general).

South Africa is, to my knowledge, the only country in the world where provinces have the very limited mandate of “oversight” over a highly centralised national police service, without any operational control over the police, no policy-making powers, and minimal ability to effect the necessary changes.

So limited is this mandate that, when the DA won the provincial election in the Western Cape in 2009, the new cabinet discussed the possibility of disbanding the Community Safety portfolio altogether, because its existence created the false perception that we had powers over policing. There seemed little point in having a Department of Community Safety and a Provincial Minister of Community Safety, without operational control over the SAPS, or any effective way of establishing systems of accountability.

However, after in-depth discussion and expert advice, we concluded that we should use the portfolio to test the limits of oversight – something that had never been done under our new constitution. It is worthwhile briefly to summarise the major steps we have taken:

  1. We are the only province to have adopted a Community Safety Act, which defines what oversight is, and what the SAPS obligations are to assist us in performing this mandate effectively. This enables us to get access to places, information and statistics which were previously “off limits”. This means we can now track information regarding police action, from the scene of the crime to individual police stations. We can get crime statistics and other documents, including dockets presented as evidence in courts of law. This has enabled us to evaluate the efficiency and effectiveness of police action, and make precise recommendations to fix the problems we identify.
  2. We can use this information to help formulate the “policing needs and priorities” that provinces submit to the national Department of Police at the start of the annual budget cycle.
  3. We have established the office of the Police Ombudsman, where members of the public can submit complaints about the efficiency and effectiveness of policing and demand follow-up.
  4. We have established a “watching brief” programme with senior law students, who monitor significant court cases and report back on the quality of evidence submitted in the court dockets, and the police’s role in court. If the prosecution fails, we are able to establish whether this was due to a failure of policing at any point, and report this back to the Provincial Commissioner. Last year 11 disciplinary cases arose from the “watching briefs” programme and the quality of the dockets submitted to court have improved substantially as a result.

One would imagine that our exercising these powers would cause tension between the province and SAPS, but the opposite has been the case. Since LieutenantGeneral Khombinkosi Jula took over the reins as provincial Police Commissioner, he has made a concerted effort to ensure that oversight results in a co-operative relationship (rather than a defensive stand-off) between the police and the province to identify and fix problems.

Unfortunately, however, this reciprocation has not been mirrored at national level, where the Police Department and successive ministers have often done everything possible to frustrate our oversight efforts. For example, they fought us all the way to the Constitutional Court in an attempt to block the appointment of the Khayelitsha Commission of Inquiry, which sought to establish the reasons for the breakdown in community/police relationships that resulted in a total of 78 vigilante killings in the course of three years in Khayelitsha. When the Constitutional Court finally confirmed our right to establish the commission, its recommendations helped us to resolve many of the problems in this precinct, under the leadership of the excellent new cluster commander in Khayelitsha, Major-General Johan Brandt.

But that is where the co-operation ended. To this day, three different national Police Ministers have refused to sign the Memorandum of Agreement to jointly implement the commission’s recommendations.

And, despite the President’s undertaking in his reply to the State of the Nation debate in 2016 to re-establish the special police units in priority crime categories (including gangs and drugs), no progress has been made; and the system of recruiting police reservists has come to an effective standstill, depleting the ranks of crucial support personnel.

At the positive end of the scale, however, the province’s Community Safety Act has enabled the Western Cape government to formalise neighbourhood watches, training, equipping and accrediting them to undertake crucial work in partnership with their local police stations. They are involved in information gathering, mobilising community support for lawful policing, and street patrols. When the partnership between the neighbourhood watch and the local police works well, it provides the best possible antidote to both vigilantism and crime. We were pleased to note that, following the murders in Philippi East last week, Colonel Bongani Mtakati was appointed station commander, and one of the first initiatives in the area has been to begin the process of establishing a formal neighbourhood watch system so that community members do not, in despair, turn to vigilantism as the only way they can protect themselves against gangsters.

The recent launch of “Project Backbone” has taken the neighbourhood watch concept a step further. Using technology (particularly WhatsApp groups), residents can stay in close contact with each other to share intelligence and link all local stakeholders in the “safety chain” from individual citizens, families, neighbours, streets, blocks – right through to the police station commander. Rapid local communication can prove pivotal in the fight against crime, especially in an emergency.

Sadly, these strategies generally fail in areas that have been “captured” by criminal gangs that impose a reign of terror, and set the terms of engagement in “their territories”. They form a parallel government, even demanding “protection money” from service providers undertaking routine maintenance on “their” turf, and preventing children from “rival gang areas” from crossing “their areas” on the way to school.

I tried to establish a commission of inquiry (with powers of subpoena) to investigate the seemingly limitless flow of guns into the hands of these gangsters, but lawyers advised me that “firearms control (which includes illegal firearm transit) is a national competency and it is not open to the Premier to establish a commission of inquiry to investigate a matter that relates to an area of exclusive national competency.”

We also await with anticipation the outcome of the Social Justice Coalition’s court application for a more rational distribution of police officers, especially to the most crime-ravaged areas. It is difficult to explain the police under-resourcing of the Western Cape as a whole, and the distribution of the available officers to stations across the province.

And we have launched a bold plan to physically restructure the heart of South Africa’s “gang capital”, Manenberg, linking schools and new institutions in a protected and attractive Youth Lifestyle Campus as a way of creating an urban environment conducive to development and education.

As innovative as some of these measures are, I fear they are insufficient to contain, let alone resolve, the entrenched culture of drugs, gangs and violence in certain communities. Their situation cannot be resolved or even improved by “oversight powers”. In such cases we need to learn from cities that have successfully dealt with the problem of rival gangs seizing control of entire communities (including infiltrating the police).

Some gang-ridden favelas in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, provide an instructive example. When I visited the city a few years ago to study the impact of their widely heralded “pacification programme” which sought to bring the drug-wars between rival gangs under control in the most notorious favelas (hillside slums), I learnt about the central role the army played in the programme. Through joint operations with the police, sustained military presence provided the back-up needed to quell the violence for extended periods of time – far longer than any other intervention. Of course, the drug lords always fight back, especially when they are released from jail, resulting in a repeat of the “pacification” programme when necessary, as happened last month in the notorious Rocinha favela.

Unfortunately, President Jacob Zuma and the then ministers of police and defence rejected my request for a similar intervention in our worst-affected areas. I made this application in terms of Section 201 (2) of the Constitution read together with 19 of the Defence Act, which enables the defence force to be employed in co-operation with SAPS to prevent and combat crime and preserve law and order within the boundaries of South Africa. I understand the hesitation, in a democracy, to deploy the army against citizens – even if they are notorious criminals. But the challenge in some places is well beyond the scope of normal policing. Uncontainable drug-fuelled violent crime, with murder rates comparable to countries in a state of civil war, constitutes a genuine emergency. Extraordinary interventions are required to bring it under control.

After the President had turned down our request, the Metro Police established a stabilisation unit, to which the province contributed significant funding, to try to achieve the same effect. But we could not afford sufficient manpower – for the length of time required – to make a sustained impact. This is a crisis that only the national government has the constitutional power and resources to resolve.

Reading the State of Urban Safety Report in the context of the gruesome events of the past weeks made me determined to try again, this time using Sections 30 and 31 of the Defence Act, which allows the Chief of the Defence Force, or his designee, to appoint any member of the defence force as a military police official, who may at any time and in any place perform any police function, which includes the prevention and combating of crime, the investigation of any offence or alleged offence, and the maintenance of law and order.

In short this means that Defence Force members can be deployed as force multipliers to assist the police and “blanket” an area to crack down on drugs and crime.

Of course, this must be done in the context of commitment to co-operative governance. We will have to discuss the proposal in detail in the Western Cape cabinet, as a precursor to discussions with the Provincial Police Command, as a prelude to approaching the relevant national ministers. We will have to make a strong evidence-based case of the extent of the crisis in certain areas, while avoiding, at all costs, an exercise in political point scoring.

We owe it to the people living in these unbearable circumstances to use every constitutional lever we can to help resolve the daily problems they face.

At present, I can see no other way to reverse the spiralling murder rate, arising from the situation in a few police precincts. If co-operative governance can work at times of celebration (as it did during the world cup, when we recorded the lowest crime levels ever), we can surely repeat this co-operation in situations of crisis —  which is an apt description of the violent crime situation in some parts of Cape Town and our country today. DM


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