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The Cape Flats is in a state of emergency and the SANDF is making it worse


Inge Odendaal is a South African Research Chair Initiative (SARChi) grant holder in the area of gender and politics. She is currently pursuing her MA in Political Science at Stellenbosch University on the politics of human (in)security for women from the Cape Flats.

We are in a state of emergency in Cape Town, but the emergency is that our government (local and national) is clueless about what is going on on the ground on the Cape Flats. We are also in an emergency because the government seems to think it’s acceptable to let its people live in a war zone.

Since the announcement of the deployment of the SANDF to the Cape Flats, I’ve had this feeling of uneasiness. How can this seriously be an option? If decision-makers really knew anything about anything, this would be the last option possible. The deployment of the SA National Defence Force (SANDF) to the Cape Flats to “deal” with the issue of organised crime – or, specifically, gangscould potentially trigger events which could worsen the situation.

The deployment of the SANDF will increase casualties of violence, specifically risking sexual assault for women and children, increase casualties of random shootings and contribute to further instability within an already turbulent environment.

Nee man, Premier Alan Winde and MEC Albert Fritz – shame on you.

Let’s be clear: this article is not politically motivated. There are, however, issues which go hand-in-hand with governance and cannot be overlooked. The issue of gangs and gang-related violence on the Cape Flats is not new. In fact, Cape Town has been identified as displaying similar levels of violence and organised crime as in Latin America and Central America. Don Pinnock, author of Gang Town (Tafelberg), estimates that about 137 groups operate within the area and are made up of 80,000 to 100,000 members. The Cape Flats is a pocket of instability wherein lawmakers and law enforcement have little to no power.

Understanding organised crime on the Cape Flats is a complex task as there is no single perspective or issue that gives rise to individuals’ participation in organised crime. Much research (including my own) suggests that it often stems from socio-economic inequalities. These inequalities have direct roots in the Group Areas Act of 1950, apartheid, and the existing spatial divide between those who have and those who don’t in Cape Town. This understanding is something that is lacking within the City of Cape Town.

To date, the City of Cape Town has only complained about policing ratios. Policing ratios are not the only thing that will change the state of organised crime and levels of violence. However, if we look at the messages behind the cries for policing ratios it is underpinned by politics between the Democratic Alliance (DA) and African National Congress (ANC). To illustrate this is the DA’s push towards federalisation, calling for more police and a separate police force. Another example is Police Minister Bheki Cele’s much-publicised visit to Bonteheuwel in 2018. In this PR stunt, he promised more police officers, which never materialised.

In contrast, with requests by the government for more police, residents have said police form part of the problem. Officers are on the “payroll” of criminal groups and have been cited as not being responsive to calls.

Don Pinnock writes in Gang Town that police may take minutes to respond to calls in the city centre, but can take hours or even days to respond to calls on the Cape Flats. The police have also been said to be part of illicit dealings – even exchanging sex for the disappearance of dockets. There have also been reports of sexual harassment and assault by the police of women associated with certain groups.

Police aside, let’s talk about the army. Specifically, why the deployment of the SANDF is a problem. First, there is the issue of a mandate. The mandate and training of the SANDF cannot replace that of the police. These two groups are completely different in their training and focus.

The premise on which the SANDF was bought on to the Flats is also problematic. The first premise, as proclaimed by Alan Winde in an interview with SAfm in February 2019 was to use them as “Peacekeeping Forces”. Peacekeeping forces are usually used across the African continent and sanctioned by the United Nations to regain stability and peace within areas of violence and upheaval.

Recently, a colleague, who prefers to stay anonymous but lives on the Cape Flats, shared with me that the SANDF had arrived in their area to do some “drug busts” at sites identified by the community. This was useless as this could have been done by the police. But, more importantly, the criminal groups operating in the area knew exactly what was going to happen and where. The SANDF has been described as running around like headless chickens, not knowing what to do. This is because policing is not their mandate. My colleague described the SANDF as a show and not truly providing a sustainable change in combatting gangsterism.

Peacekeeping forces across the continent are also not what they are made out to be. In fact, these forces have been known for sexual abuse of locals by male soldiers. The term “sex for aid” has also been associated with peacekeeping forces. Lack of accountability is one of the phrases that comes to mind.

Another basis on which the SANDF has been co-opted on to the Flats, according to MEC of Safety and Security in the Western Cape, Albert Fritz, is to “… sort it out… and shoot anyone”. Retaliation by criminal groups is one of the biggest concerns for residents on the Flats because this would mean a full-blown wartime situation in communities filled with families.

Often, the victims of violence on the Flats are innocent bystanders of shootings, especially children. The deployment of the SANDF poses a legitimate threat to vulnerable populations on the Flats. My question to Premier Winde and MEC Fritz is, “Would you let your family stay in this area?” If no, then why are you allowing this to happen to citizens – who probably voted for you?

Another example of why the SANDF deployment could potentially worsen the situation on the Flats is arms. Dr Guy Lamb from the Safety and Violence Initiative in Cape Town argues that hotspot policing and a crackdown on the flow of illicit arms have been successful in curbing levels of violence. It’s logical: fewer guns in an area will translate into fewer gun-related deaths and injuries. By deploying the SANDF, the City of Cape Town and national government have sent in a stockpile of arms. These arms could easily be traded, bought or even stolen – if they haven’t already.

My problem with the SANDF on the Cape Flats is the measurement. How does one measure levels of organised crime? It is not the rate of murder in a province. This is a baseless measurement which officials have used for press coverage over the last couple of weeks. Murder and violence are only a minor reflection of the activities of gangs. This approach is incomplete as the problem of gangs and security extends far beyond a conflict-related death toll. This is just another illustration of a lack of understanding of gangs by government.

The image of military officials patrolling the streets of communities where the majority of residents are people of colour is upsetting. This image mimics events of apartheid, specifically the States of Emergency.

Let’s get real – this is 2019. We are 25 years into democracy. Does this situation indicate a healthy, thriving system where all citizens are equal and have equal access to liberties? I don’t think so. This is also truly telling as to what government (local and national) thinks of its voters – especially the City of Cape Town and the premier’s office.

On a certain level, I think we are in a state of emergency, but the emergency is that our government (local and national) is clueless about what is going on in the Cape Flats. We are also in an emergency because the government seems to think that it’s acceptable to let its people live in a war zone.

So, what is the solution? This is what many activists, communities and researchers are trying to figure out.

A step in the right direction would be for the City of Cape Town to acknowledge its limited understanding of the situation and to make an effort to understand the dimensions of the issue which will translate into specific strategies for specific problems. They need to speak to representatives at a grassroots level, engage in research, build relationships with local communities and design a multipronged solution.

I would suggest that a reasonable allocation of permanent police, hotspot policing and effective policing specialised in organised crime operations in Cape Town is the first step. This step, in conjunction with dealing with the root causes of gangs and governance issues of economic and food insecurity, is the best way forward.

What is important to know is that a “quick fix” or “one size fits all” solution such as deploying the SANDF is not effective nor is it dealing with the issue in a sustainable manner. If the government does not change its strategy, my forecast is that the situation will continue on the Cape Flats. In fact, it will only get worse given the increasing poverty across South Africa.

It’s time that we start addressing the root cause and stop living in denial by placing a Band-Aid over a festering wound. DM


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