Tag Archives: murder

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.”


Johannesburg: A City Feared and Fearful

Johannesburg has a shocking reputation internationally. So when you mention to the average Brit that you’re living there, they look at you like you’ve just said you’re residing in a war zone and ask what it’s like in hushed tones.


But the response is completely different if you say you dwell in the Cape. It’s amazing just how many people from the UK have either visited on holiday and loved it, or aim to go at some point in the future.


And, unsurprisingly, if they have been, they’ll wax lyrical about the region’s beauty, how friendly and laid back the locals are and what a fabulous time they had chasing up and down the Garden Route.


But the funny thing is just how deceptive appearances can be. Because in reality, the murder rate – the usual yardstick used to measure how dangerous or violent a city is – is almost twice as high in Cape Town than it is in Johannesburg these days, according to a recent report by South African national newspaper, the Mail & Guardian.


But to be fair to my much-loved former home, even this fact is rather misleading as, between April 2011 and March 2012, nearly two thirds of all homicides took place in only 10 of the city’s 60 police station precincts.


Not entirely surprisingly, most of the victims came from deprived, low-income areas, with residents – and in particular, young black men – living in local townships such as Mitchell’s Plain and Khayelitsha suffering disproportionately.


While recent surges in gang violence certainly haven’t helped matters much, the majority of people nonetheless tend to be killed by friends, family members or acquaintances following booze- or drug-fuelled rows.


What this all means in practice is that, despite a national murder rate that is four and a half times higher than the global average of 6.9 per 100,000 people – equating to 43 homicides each day – the bloodshed tends to be pretty localised.


Feared and fearful


Three out of four murders take place in just a quarter of the country’s police station precincts, with homicides in affluent suburbs such as Camps Bay in Cape Town or Parkhurst where we live in Johannesburg, being rare.


The reason that Jozi gets such a bad rap, however, is that, according to the South African Institute of Race Relations’ South Africa survey, it outstrips all other cities in the country for aggravated robbery.


Aggravated robbery involves the use of a deadly weapon and includes activities such as carjacking and domestic theft. And it is these crimes that generate the most fear, not least because of their sheer randomness.


Unlike murder, which tends to be committed by known people following a specific chain of events, they are mainly indiscriminate acts perpetrated by unknown, faceless individuals that make people feel very unsafe as a result.


Therefore, you could say that Jozi is actually the most feared, and fearful, city in South Africa – although that’s certainly not to trivialise its high crime rate, particularly in the city’s rundown, downtown Central Business District.


But such matters are all too easy to forget when you’re sitting with a glass of wine in your hand in a bar in Parkhurst on a Friday night or browsing around doing a bit of shopping in nearby Rosebank mall during the day.


You truly could be in any large city anywhere in the world, and you’re certainly not standing there quivering, waiting for something awful to happen at any moment.


Nonetheless, security is a high profile business round here and undoubtedly contributes to any complacent feeling of wellbeing, whether justified or not.


In our neck of the woods, for instance, you’ll routinely see so-called NYPD private security officers hanging around on street corners as well as Cortac guards patrolling about in their trucks, all with the aim of ensuring that no one’s lurking around and getting up to no good.


Private security


And their credentials are impressive. Cortac, which just happens to be our security services provider, is staffed by former military and special forces personnel – and they wear chunky, black body armour and semi-automatics to prove it.


Their response times are also amazingly quick. When a pre-Christmas storm caused the branch of a tree to take out the electric fence nestling atop our high perimeter walls, in the process setting off the alarm and terrifying the wits out of us at some God forsaken hour of the morning, they arrived to search for undesirables within minutes. Literally.


So what with that, an internal alarm system and panic buttons should we need them, no one can say that we’re not prepared.


In other middle class areas such as the upmarket residential suburb of Hurlingham though, you’ll also come across manned road barriers that restrict access to anyone that they don’t like the look of. Many of the gated communities and larger properties likewise sport their own little sheds with private guards sitting in them.


But even in more open residential streets like ours, you still won’t be able to peek through anyone’s curtains as they’re all hidden behind three meter high security walls, complete with sign boards advertising that they’re protected by this firm or that firm 24 hours a day.


But, dramatic as this all may seem to your unsuspecting Brit, it’s all just another day in the life of the average Joburger – and the country’s private security industry for that matter, which has more than doubled in size over the past dozen years and is now the largest in the world.


Comprising 9,000 organisations that employ over 400,000 guards to service the requirements of middle- to high-income families nationwide – a figure that is incidentally, more than twice as many as the under-resourced and struggling South African Police Service – it is currently the single biggest provider of entry-level jobs in the country.


Which means that the sector will likely have an important role to play in the wellbeing of the country for some time to come. And in mine too, presumably.