South African soldiers were deployed to gang-ridden Cape Town suburbs on Thursday to help quell escalating violence that has killed hundreds this year and that officials have likened to a war zone.
Bloodshed over the past seven months in mainly poor black and mixed-race areas has killed more than 2,000 people, almost half gang-related, Western Cape provincial officials said.
The South African National Defence Force (SANDF) said last Friday it would deploy a battalion with support elements to communities in the Cape Flats, where high rates of unemployment and drug abuse have fuelled gang activity.
“For an hour and a half they targeted houses and cordoned off some streets…They did some raids with the anti-gang unit and the local police,” Kader Jacobs, chairman of the Manenberg Community Policing Forum, which helps crime prevention in the working class Manenberg suburb, said of the army deployment.
“I think the people expected the army to be in the area at least between 8 and 12 hours, not a cameo visit of an hour and a half and off you go,” he said.
A Reuters cameraman followed the convoy of armoured personnel carriers, with an estimated 200 soldiers, from Manenberg to another crime hotspot, Hanover Park. Both areas were built more than 50 years ago during the apartheid era to house mixed-race families displaced from suburbs designated whites-only.
The deployment of several hundred soldiers to gang strongholds will take place from July to October, although Defence Minister Nosiviwe Mapisa-Nqakula suggested on Wednesday that the “exit strategy” would be determined by intelligence gathering.
The soldiers’ deployment was promised following a visit by Police Minister Bheki Cele to the Philippi shanty town on the Cape Flats after almost a dozen people were killed earlier this month.
Famous for its stunning tourist attractions, including Robben Island and Table Mountain, Cape Town has some of South Africa’s highest murder rates, with 3,674 murders recorded in the Western Cape last year, according to police statistics.
There is an entrenched gang culture with thousands of young men belonging to street gangs with names like “Hard Livings” and “Young Americans”.
Mapisa-Nqakula said on Wednesday she hoped the army deployment would deter further gang violence.
“It will have to be robust in the beginning to stabilise the situation and have an element of surprise,” she said.
Dr Don Pinnok, a criminologist who has written extensive content on gangs, believes that sending troops to the Cape Flats will only provide temporary relief.
Pinnok, writing for News24, states that there is an extremely complex underworld that includes, “foreign transnational smugglers, local warehousing merchants, area syndicate bosses, gang bosses, bent cops and young street ‘soldiers’ who are the ones who generally pull the triggers.” He goes onto say that when the military is removing a street-corner gang fighting and killing for space, it creates opportunities for other gangs to take over.
The solution to gang violence and drug infested areas, Pinnok believes, is through education, campaigning, support and policy. Education has and continues to be a problem in South Africa and the Western Cape is no exception. Pinnok states that 350 000 youths in the city of Cape Town under the age of 25 are not in education, employment or training.
Malnutrition is a key contributor to the under development of youth in the country. Pinnok links malnutrition with alcohol and drugs that have a strong grip on the gang ridden community, leading to a, “high possibility of irreversible brain damage” in young children. A path to addressing the issue, Pinnok states, is through campaigning.
Government support and policy for areas such as the Cape Town flats is paramount to how the community develops. Providing nutritional support for pregnant woman is widely proved to be an effective method for bringing down malnutrition statistics. Additionally, Pinnock sites how successful other countries such as Portugal have been in policies that decriminalise drugs and commence relegation by government.
Certainly for addressing the long term problems of gangsterism, substance abuse and poor education, thoughts and solutions such as Pinnok’s need to come to the fore front of conversations and government policy making in the Western Cape.