Tag Archives: Mother City

Gang Violence Devastates Cape Town’s Townships

Despite Johannesburg’s reputation for being the most dangerous city in South Africa, it now appears that the tourist mecca of Cape Town has stolen its crown.

According to a list of the top 50 most violent urban areas on the planet compiled by Mexican NGO Citizens’ Council for Public Security and Criminal Justice and published last week, the Mother City was ranked a startling number 20.

The ratings are assigned by measuring the number of homicides per 100,000 citizens each year and do not include war zones. So on this basis, Cape Town recorded an average of 50.94, making it not only the most violent city in the country, but also the entire continent.

Joburg, on the other hand, did not figure in the rankings at all, which were, in fact, dominated by Latin American cities, with San Pedro Sula in Honduras topping the list (187.14).

But this is not the first time that Cape Town has been singled out for its high levels of violence. Although domestic arguments turned nasty are the most likely reason for murder in the region, accounting for a third of all 2,580 such incidents last year, next on the list is gang-related violence (18%), which has been escalating in recent years.

As for the areas with the highest murder rates last year, these were found not so much in the region’s high-profile tourist areas, but rather in the townships of the Cape Flats.

The Cape Flats are a vast, barren area about 30km to the south east of Cape Town itself, where people designated as “non-white” during the apartheid era were compelled to live as part of the regime’s forced removal policy.

Among the most afflicted townships there are Gugulethu, where Anni Dewani, whose British husband is currently on trial for her murder, was killed, and Mitchell’s Plain, a predominantly “coloured” (a South African term for people of mixed race) settlement that suffers the highest levels of gang-related murders.

Because, while “black” townships may experience the highest murder rates overall, it is “coloured” communities that suffer disproportionately from organised gang activity.

Craven Engel, a minister and chief executive of NGO, First Community Resource Centre, which is based in the troubled area of Hanover Park, explains that, while gangs have existed in one form or another for generations, before forced resettlement in the 1960s, they were largely benevolent.

But the social dislocation, disempowerment and anger resulting from the policy led to a change in focus. A lack of action by law enforcement then entrenched the situation, leaving communities feeling increasingly hopeless, marginalised and abandoned.

Gang dynamics

In fact, as the gangs increasingly moved into drug trafficking, some corrupt police officers also started taking a slice of the pie. This scenario led to whole roads being “contaminated with drug outlets”, specialising mainly in tik (methamphetamine) and, progressively over the last two years, heroin-based nyaope.

But there are also other factors at play. For example, overcrowding is rife and urban design alienating, something that Engel hopes will be tackled by City planners following an external assessment for a much-needed redesign next year.

To make matters worse, he says: “Unemployment is crazy – 70% the last time I checked – and poverty is crippling people. There’s a lack of opportunity and educational levels are also quite low, with school dropout rates terrible. This makes recruitment to gang culture very easy as there’s derailed youth everywhere.”

In fact, the gang’s recruitment policy with regards to age has now dropped to 12 years old as it is perceived that children will get off more lightly and not be sent to prison if caught.

But being a tattooed member of a gang not only generates an income, it also confers respect, a feeling of identity and of safety by belonging to an organisation that promises to protect you.

What this all means, Andre Standing, a senior researcher at the Institute of Security Studies, points out in a 2005 policy discussion paper – the most up-to-date estimate available – is that there are now as many as 130 street and prison gangs operating in the Cape Town area, which between them have around 100,000 members.

In a bid to reduce the levels of violence that ensue though, Engel set up a social crime prevention programme called CeaseFire four years ago after attending a workshop hosted by a group with the same name from Chicago in the US.

The scheme, which is funded by the City of Cape Town, is based on the idea that gang violence is like a contagious disease. Therefore, when it breaks out in the community, individuals need to be quarantined by so-called “violence interrupters” to prevent it from spreading further.

“An interrupter is like an antibiotic,” Engel explains. “He’s a street-level guy who spends most of his time on the beat and mediates to prevent violence or retribution taking place. Once that’s done, he hands the case over to an outreach worker, who is more of a social worker. They then do risk work with individuals and find out what we can offer them.”

Possible services here include residence at a half-way house to help people deal with substance abuse, skills development, legal support and help in finding work.

But trauma counselling is also available both for gang members and their families who often suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder due to living in what is essentially a continuous warzone.

Another thing worth noting though is that both interrupters and outreach workers are all former gang members themselves, often with prison stretches behind them. This status not only gives them street cred, but also means that they are intimately familiar with the issues faced by others.


As a result, over the last two years, CeaseFire’s Hanover Park programme has successfully intervened with 158 youths, some 70 of whom have left gang life and are now in gainful employment.

“The primary aim is to stop guys shooting and to mediate conflict so as to stop violence spreading. But the hidden agenda is to get people to exit gangs,” Engel says.

Although many programme participants have yet to do so, “almost 70% aren’t shooters any more”, he adds. While they might still carry weapons to protect their turf, “they’ll now think twice before using them”.

This means that, since the scheme began, violence levels in the area have dropped by about 50%. While 38 people died last year, the figure up until 16 September had more than halved again to 16.

One tool that is proving useful in supplementing limited manpower levels, meanwhile, is the Shotspotter gunfire detection system. Despite its far-reaching work, the CeaseFire programme is only able to employ five interrupters and outreach workers respectively, two office staff and two volunteers.

The system, which was developed by California-based SST to alert police should shots go off in troubled US neighbourhoods, is also being used in Kruger National Park in the fight against rhino poaching.

But since 15 August, Shotspotter has likewise been taking part in a three-month pilot project covering a 1kmsq area of Hanover Park. Once a shot goes off in the area, the sound is triangulated using sensors, and audio and location data is sent to interrupters via an SMS message.

They are then able to respond to the incident within minutes and without having to depend on often-unreliable information from members of the public.

Another key advantage of the system is that it provides analytical information, which enables both CeaseFire and law enforcement bodies to deploy resources when and where they are most needed.

Engel explains: “We now know that most activity takes place between 12pm and 3am on Monday mornings, which we didn’t expect. So the data has navigated us much closer to the trouble spots and, because we can see areas heating up and cooling down, it’s now possible to deploy people more effectively.”

A decision on whether to extend the trial or have the system go live will be taken early next year, most likely around the same time that CeaseFire begins extending its scheme into nearby areas such as Manenberg and Kewtown.

As Engel concludes: “There’s much hope around the programme. It takes time for a community to heal, but peace attracts positive things like investment and job opportunities. They’re now starting to happen and so, while it’s taken a long time, we’re finally beginning to see positive rays of hope.”


The ‘real’ South Africa: Beauty or poverty?

There’s nothing like having a guest to make you see your familiar surroundings through new eyes.

It’s like anything – once you’ve been somewhere for a while, you stop noticing the backdrop so much and just get on with the details of life. And after a year in South Africa, I reckon that I’ve practically gone native.

So it was interesting to hear my friend give her impressions of the country during her two-week holiday here. Johannesburg – or our bit of it in the Parkhurst area anyway – had a similar look-and-feel to Melbourne in Australia, she felt, with its green, open, leafy suburbs and spotlessly clean, freshly-built shopping malls.

Cape Town, on the other hand, reminded her very much of San Francisco, California, particularly at the heavily-touristed V&A Waterfront, which is distinctly reminiscent of the equally popular Fisherman’s Wharf with its street performers and wealth of retail opportunities.

But, while the Mother City’s rather pedestrian downtown area may not have the gentle, low-rise pastel-coloured-building charm of San Francisco, with its 50-plus hills and historic cable cars, what it does have is a truly stupendous setting that, arguably, puts even the lovely Bay Area to shame.

Surrounded by mountains sweeping imperiously down to the sea, with the world-renowned Table Mountain as its breath-taking jewel in the crown, Cape Town is in some ways at its best in the suburbs where many of its most interesting sites lie.

And top of the sightseeing list for my friend, after Pilanesberg National Park in the North West province, some two hours drive from Johannesburg, was the Mother City’s beautiful Kirstenbosch Botanical Gardens in those very suburbs.

Nestled on the steep eastern slopes of Table Mountain, the 36-hectare Gardens actually form part of a larger and mostly wooded and fynbos-bedecked 528-hectare estate at the heart of the Cape Floristic Region.

Unesco World Heritage Site

This Region, otherwise known as the Cape Floral Kingdom, was declared a Unesco World Heritage Site in 2004, making the Botanic Gardens the first in the world to be included in such a designation.

But they deserve it. Not only are the setting and sweeping views from the upper slopes magnificent, if somewhat exhausting to reach. But the Gardens can also claim another world first in having, from their creation in 1913 onwards, devoted themselves entirely to growing indigenous flora in order to protect and conserve it.

Included in the mix is South Africa’s national flower, the King Protea, which itself is a form of fynbos. This shrubland vegetation is interesting in that it grows in only a limited area of the Western Cape’s coastal belt, but makes up an astounding 50% of the African subcontinent’s 18,000 or so entire plant species.

To put that statement into even more perspective, Table Mountain plays host to 1,460 or so different types of fynbos alone, which is more than all of the plant species put together in the UK.

Anyway, none of these facts, despite their worthiness, really do justice to the beauty of the Gardens themselves, which are divided up into different rooms, intermingled with streams and ponds and all linked together by sweeping herringbone-paved pathways.

My favourites had to be the ‘Medicinal’ and related ‘Useful Plants’ areas though as I have always been fascinated by the folklore surrounding these things, despite the unfamiliarity of most of the local plants.

I would also have quite liked the ‘Fragrance’ garden too if it hadn’t set off my hay fever, which meant, unfortunately, that I couldn’t smell anything for the rest of the day.

Third on my friend’s list of not-to-be-forgotten experiences, meanwhile, was scaling Table Mountain itself. In the past, my experience of this particular, little treasure hadn’t always been as positive as it might be, it must be said.

The ‘real’ Africa

I’ve generally had to wait for hours in baking hot queues, just to scare myself silly (being terrified of heights) in the nail-biting cable car ride to the top, before freezing my bits off in the usual gales up there after having forgotten to bring a much-needed jumper.

But this time, it was a different experience altogether. This time, after braving the endless queues, I plonked myself down on a tiny seat near the operator in the middle of the cable car so that I couldn’t see a thing. And to add to my joys, we disembarked to boiling hot sunshine with not so much as a gust of wind to be felt.

It was fabulous. I even felt brave enough to leave the café after a cup of restorative rooibos tea and partake of a short, and free, guided tour, which was definitely worth it, not least for the spectacular views of mountains and bays combined with azure seas and skies.

The only slight downside was not spotting any rock dassies, which are small, guinea pig-like creatures that like sunbathing on large rocks and can do clever things like collapse their ribcages if they want to squeeze into small crevices to escape predators.

Bizarrely though, despite their diminutive proportions, a dassie’s closest relative is apparently the African elephant, which just goes to show that you shouldn’t judge a book by its cover.

But in fact, the same could be said of South Africa itself really. As a tourist going to all of the ‘nice’ bits, it’s all too easy to avoid seeing the poverty and depravation experienced by the majority of people in this country.

Certainly here in Johannesburg’s northern suburbs, you could be in any developed country anywhere in the world – a fact that my friend pointed out to me with surprise, adding that it wasn’t what she’d imagined Africa to be, not the “real” Africa anyway which she’d still like to visit.

A statement that, whichever way you look at it, really is a bit of a sad indictment of what’s happened, and is still happening, on this beautiful continent.

Cape Town: Letting the quirky times roll….

Given my fascination with the quirky, novel and original, last week’s set of singular Cape Town experiences had me in ecstasies.


Because my Beloved had a week’s holiday, we decided that the time was right to doff the local tourist mantle and explore what the Cape has to offer – and where better to start than the Mother City herself.


First on the list of treats was that veritable South African institution, Madame Zingara and her burlesque spectacular, hosted by a rather sinister MC called ‘The Hot Mr C’, who struck me as a rather jollier version of Papa Lazarou from ‘The League of Gentleman’.


Approaching an almost cult-like status in South Africa, the show comprises a remarkably good four-course meal interspersed with everything from singers and acrobats to Flamenco-dancing Gauchos (cowboys) drumming and swinging their bolas to beat out the rhythm.


My favourite act though had to be the foot-juggling, where one guy from Mongolia spun another around with his feet as if he were a performing seal spinning a ball on the end of his nose. I’ve never seen anything like it. Amazing.


But the Madame Zingara phenomenon is not new, it seems. It all started in 2001 at a restaurant on Loop Street, close to the more famous Long Street in the centre of town.


After the place burned down a mere five years later though, the team took itself off to Belgium to purchase the only Spiegeltent (or mirror tent) that has ever set its pegs in South African soil.


Apparently these huge wood and canvas marquees, only a handful of which still remain, were originally built in the Flemish part of the country in the late 1800s and early 1900s to act as travelling dance halls for places that didn’t already have them.


Dressed in opulent velvet brocade, stained glass and wood panelling, these notorious venues were covered with multitudes of mirrors to make it easy to make eye contact with other revellers.


Nowadays, the ‘Spiegelpaleis’ goes on regular tours to both Johannesburg and Durban. But another trip overseas appears unlikely following a disastrous stint in London at the start of the recession, which practically bust the whole thing.


American themes


But back to our evening as the fun didn’t end there. Because this was a belated birthday treat for me, my Beloved had decided to up the novelty factor by booking us into the Grand Daddy Hotel on Long Street.


Although from the outside, the place seems like any other reasonably upmarket boutique establishment, its claim to fame is being the only hotel in the world to come with an Airstream Rooftop Trailer Park on top, complete with its own bar area.


Each of the seven silver trailers, which were specially imported from the US, has been fitted out in a different style including ‘The Ballad of John and Yoko’, which houses a huge bed, musical instruments and creativity board for writing messages of love and peace.


We stayed in the ‘Moontides’ though, which was the roomiest and most tasteful done out in a modernistic silver and blue theme. Very pleasant.


To continue the American theme, the next venue on our list was ‘The House of Machines’ on nearby Shortmarket Street, which had just been reviewed by my leisure bible, www.capetownmagazine.com.


This café/glass-enclosed custom motorbike workshop/men’s clothing and accessories outlet was only opened towards the end of August by three bike lovers who combined their business interests after an inspiring trip to Brooklyn, New York.


And they’ve certainly done well in capturing that urban chic vibe – walls with exposed brickwork, ceiling beams with a suitably weathered look, and pictures that are all atmospheric black-and-white or biker-themed.


The wide wooden food counter even doubles up as “Prohibition Bar’ on Thursday and Friday nights – or will do once a liquor licence has been secured anyway.


For the moment though, it’s all about fruit smoothies, organic coffee and a selection of freshly-made breakfast and lunch bites that you can chow down on while watching the construction of one-off, retro-looking bikes. It really shouldn’t work, but it does.


Short & Sweet


And then finally onto a bit of culture – the latest ‘Short & Sweet’ season (three), which was first launched in Cape Town in 2011 to showcase short films made both locally and around the world.


This quirky and entertaining annual event, which currently comprises eight different movies being shown every Tuesday and Saturday evening for seven weeks until the end of the September, is the brainchild of Julia Stephenson.


Julia is a Capetonian who lived in London for 12 years, six of which were spent working as an agent for film directors. During this time, she was, unsurprisingly, sent loads of show reels, many of which comprised short films that had little or no chance of being aired.


So being the get-up-and-go type, she started screening some of them every Monday evening at a venue in Brick Lane, becoming increasingly convinced that they constituted a valid art form in their own right.


Since returning home, she’s started focusing on the Short & Sweet concept full-time, while her former partner has also taken it to Toronto.


A key aim in South Africa at least though is to try and provide local filmmakers with a platform to showcase their work or use as a jumping off point into directing feature-length films, commercial or music video work.


But Julia acknowledges that, unlike the UK, which has a long and venerable history of short-form cinema, it’s a little-understood concept in the country, where most people think she’s talking about adverts.


Undaunted by such matters, however, she’s currently looking for corporate sponsors to help make the event more sustainable and is even keen to expand out the idea.


When not on tour, the aim is to use Short & Sweet’s fabulously grungy base at the Wunderbar Theatre at Cape Town’s Old German Club as a space to encompass art in all its forms, with local musicians already included in the Saturday line-up.


And that simply has to be a good thing in a city that seems chock-full of artistic talent but appears to labour at times under a sad lack of home-grown opportunities.