Tag Archives: township

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.”


Playing to South African Youth: Eminem, Jack Parow and Kwaito

I don’t really think Eminem is a stadium performer. I’m sure his zillions of fans out there will probably hate me for saying it, but to me he seems to be more of a dingy, smoky backroom-of-a-club kind of guy.


And that’s not meant as a put-down. It’s just that I think we’re all better off playing to our strengths. And his, in my opinion, are his cleverly crafted lyrics and ability to share the often very personal details of his troubled life without descending into the mawkish or maudlin.


In fact, I’d say he’s a true wordsmith. A Bard of our times. But Bards don’t play stadiums – their performances are too intimate for that.


Another thing in my Eminem-not-being-suited-to-stadiums-view is that he’s simply not got the stage presence of, say, a Bob Marley or a Freddy Mercury. His apparent reserve denies him that.


But he still puts on a good show, complete with plenty of stalking around the stage, overt tattoo-displaying and desolate-atmosphere-creation courtesy of a video backdrop showing lots of burning buildings, presumably in his home state of Michigan somewhere.


But my reservations notwithstanding, the Saturday night crowd of 60,000 packed into iconic rugby stadium, Ellis Park in Doornfontein, downtown Jozi, simply loved him. Which just goes to show what little I know.


But I must confess that the crowd wasn’t quite what I’d expected either. In my day, which admittedly is a while ago now, you showed your allegiance to whichever subculture you were embroiled with by dressing in a certain, dare-I-say-it, rebellious fashion.


Whether you were into punk, Goth or Northern Soul, everyone could tell what your thing was by the way you dressed.


Not so with the concert-going youth of Johannesburg today though. While one or two deigned to attire themselves in time-honoured hip-hop fashion, most appeared tediously respectable in the careful homogeneity of well-cut jeans and freshly-laundered T-shirts.


Looking old


But it seems that they were just as nonplussed by us. While admittedly we were probably twice the age of most of the souls there, my Beloved found himself accosted by young guys congratulating him on being old – not once, but twice.


“It’s really great to see old people here,” said the first without the tiniest hint of embarrassment as he muscled in at the bar and gave my Beloved a high-five. “It’s really great to see old people out enjoying themselves.”


The second bounced up to us just after the first support act in the shape of Afrikaner rapper, Jack Parow, had done his thing. “Great to see you here, man. You must be my parents’ age. They’d never come to something like this – respect.”


Never mind the irony that, with Eminem now hitting the grand old age of 41, we were probably closer to him in years than they were. But it must be said that, despite the prescription drugs and alcohol abuse, Marshall Mathers (aka Eminem) looked in much better nick that Mr Parow, also known as Zander Tyler to his mum.


A mere pup at the age of 32, Parow – so-called in honour of his working-class birthplace in the Western Cape – looked decidedly middle-aged, with his unclean-shaven fizog and beer belly pulling at his black T-shirt sporting the immortal words, ‘Bitches Don’t Know’.


Renowned for wearing baseball caps with ridiculously long peaks, Parow burst onto the South African music scene in 2009, rapping initially in English before riding the resurgent wave of interest in Afrikaans music and starting to perform in his native language.


His rough-and-ready image and catchy tunes, meanwhile, are associated with a style of music known locally here as ‘zef’. Roughly translated as ‘common’ in Afrikaans, the term is a shortened version of ‘Ford Zephyr’, which refers to a type of car popular among working-class South Africans for 20 years or so from the 1950s onwards.


Although calling someone ‘zef’ was initially an insult, the term has since been reclaimed. Which means that, unlike the British word ‘chav’, the term is used by members of the mostly white, lower-middle class subculture – who tend to be into souped-up cars and bling – with pride.




Another more widespread South African subculture that wasn’t represented at the Eminem gig, however, was kwaito.


The most popular sound among the vast youth of the country’s townships, kwaito was born in Johannesburg in the late 1980s when local DJs started remixing international house music tracks by slowing the tempo down and adding African rhythms and melodic percussion.


These rhythms included the marabi beats of the 1920’s shebeen; the pennywhistle-based jives or kwela of the 1950s and the bubblegum disco sounds of the 1980s. Other influences include Jamaican dancehall, jazz and hip-hop, all coming together in a unique fusion.


However, things only really took off when self-professed ‘king of kwaito’, Arthur Mafokate, released his 1993 hit, ‘Don’t call Me Kaffir’ – a degrading word for black Africans commonly used under the country’s then crumbling apartheid regime.


Catching the mood of the time, it became the first song officially aired on the radio and kick-started a movement into the mainstream, which now sees kwaito being played all over the place.


Ironically however, unlike its equally male-dominated cousin hip-hop, kwaito is a mainly – but not exclusively – apolitical style of dance music based on rhythmic speech – rather than rap – and tends not to have the same gangster-ish edge.


Although both genres reflect life in their respective ghettos, comprising both a fashion statement and lifestyle, it’s as if the youth in South Africa just got sick of the intensity associated with the liberation struggle and decided to go down the let’s-have-fun route instead.


One thing that’s worth noting though is that, as the voice of modern urban life in the townships, kwaito isn’t usually performed much in English. Instead it’s based around Zulu, Sesotho and the local Sowetan street creole, Isicamtho, or Ringas, spoken by an estimated 500,000 young people as their primary tongue.


Zola, Boom Shaka and Mapaputsi remain major players in the scene, while more recent additions include Mandoza and the controversial Brickz.


Given kwaito’s status as South Africa’s second most popular type of music behind its world-renowned gospel choirs though, it just goes to show that playing to large stadiums isn’t the only way to make it big.



Home Sweet Home in Stellenbosch

Stellenbosch found itself at the centre of a public art controversy lately.

A new statue of former president, Nelson Mandela, has caused ructions in the heartland of conservative Afrikanerdom, but not for the reasons you might think.

The artwork, which was created by Afrikaans landscape artist, Strijdom van der Merwe, and approved by the Nelson Mandela Foundation, was unveiled outside of the Town Hall on Plein Street last Wednesday to great fanfare.

Consisting of a concrete block clad with white marble and etched with areas of the South African map that have played a key role in Madiba’s life, a laser-cut steel silhouette of his face has been placed on either side – to great effect.

Along the ground in front of the statue, one of his most famous quotes is also displayed. It reads: “Never, never and never again will this beautiful country of ours be oppressed by one over another.”

Very apt for a town that has the dubious honour of being the birthplace of apartheid, with academics at the university here having dreamt up the philosophy in the first place.

But it isn’t the Afrikaner community that’s up in arms over the presence of the new statue. Oh no. It is instead members of the ANC Youth League who are seriously disgruntled about it.

They accuse the municipality, which is controlled by arch-rivals, the Democratic Alliance (DA), of wasting R800,000 (£72,000) on the artwork when the money could have been better spent on catering to the needs of the local population living in informal housing settlements.

For the sake of clarity, the DA is also the governing party in the Western Cape and the ANC’s official opposition at a national level. Although somewhat complicated in lineage terms, it traces its roots back to the anti-apartheid movement of the 1970s and 1980s.

Anyway, while it seems to me that the DA’s argument that it is trying to honour Mandela as an international statesman and the country’s first democratically-elected president seems reasonable, I also sympathise with the point made by the ANC, no matter how political.


A similar kind of debate took place in the North East of England, where I come from, following the erection of Anthony Gormley’s Angel of the North statue on a hill near Gateshead.

While everyone outside of the region seemed to rave about it, a lot of local people were somewhat less enamoured. In a deprived post-industrial area, which in the 1990s was in desperate need of regeneration, many felt that the £1m in Lottery Funding would have been better spent on activities such as job creation.

But the living conditions in Stellenbosch’s Kayamandi township, particularly in its Enkanini informal settlement area, have nothing on Gateshead.

Kayamandi, which means “sweet home” in the Xhosa language, would seem, on the surface anyway, to be anything but.

To illustrate the point, a local charity, Prochorus, indicates that a huge 70% of the population still don’t yet live in the promised government-built Reconstruction and Development Programme houses, but instead dwell in shacks made from anything serviceable that can be found.

To make matters worse, the infrastructure, which includes sanitation and running water, is widely reported to be inadequate.

But to upgrade and extend it would cost a huge R3 billion over the next seven years, according to estimates put forward in a book called “Sustainable Stellenbosch – Opening Dialogues” by Lauren Taverner-Smith of Stellenbosch University’s School of Public Leadership.

Unfortunately however, she believes that there is currently a funding shortfall of at least R1 billion.

And this already difficult situation is not exactly being helped by the huge influx of migrant workers from the poorer, more rural Eastern Cape.

Although this migration has been going on to a greater or lesser extent for nearly 100 years mainly due to the employment opportunities offered by the local wine industry, there has nonetheless been a veritable population explosion over the last few.

Vision AfriKa

In fact, the number of Kayamandi residents has now nearly tripled from 12,000 to 33,000, only adding to already high rates of unemployment (30%). Other problems include high levels of malnutrition and HIV/AIDS infection as well as low levels of literacy.

But within this challenging environment, there are beacons of hope. One of them takes the form of a non-governmental organisation (NGO) called Vision AfriKa [www.VisionAfriKa.com], with which I’ve been working on a voluntary basis over the last few months after a friend mentioned them to me.

The charity’s aim is to support the personal growth and development of selected 13-to-18 year olds in order to complement and enhance their standard education and help them to become the success stories of tomorrow.

A key issue for many children from deprived backgrounds is that they have deeply-ingrained negative perceptions of themselves, their communities and their ability to succeed.

So the goal is to help them reframe their views, acquire vital life and leadership skills, which include critical thinking, and encourage them to take responsibility for fulfilling their own dreams.

To its credit as only a small organisation with nine full-time staff, Vision AfriKa assists nearly 400 young people each year. While the majority are based in Kayamandi, there is also a secondary site in the nearby rural settlement of Vlottenberg about 8km away.

As for my role in all this though, I’ve developed an editorial strategy to help the NGO raise its profile, not least in a bid to try and boost its fundraising activity.

I’m also acting as content editor, which means helping a busy team of youth leaders to write informative and interesting news stories for the web site as well as internal reports and the like.

And, it must be said that they do amazingly well seeing as none of them are trained writers and nor do they have English as their first language. I’m not sure I’d fancy it.

But they really are proof of their own pudding, which is that just about anything becomes possible if you’re prepared to give it a go.