Gang Wars: How the prison network and global players keep Cape Flats gangs alive

2019-07-22 06:35
Members of SANDF in Hanover Park. (Rodger Bosch, AFP)

Members of SANDF in Hanover Park. (Rodger Bosch, AFP)

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As troops roll onto the Cape Flats targeting street-level gang violence, it is important to ask if their presence is part of a plan to break the hold of the crime syndicates and networks that have their claws deep in the city's fabric.

If not, targeting gangs would be like arresting some of the cashiers in an international supermarket chain. It will merely irritate some customers.

To be effective, soldiers on the streets should be the sharp instrument of an intelligence-driven operation targeting Cape Town's dark economy, back-up for busts planned well ahead with sufficient information to jail the major players. The signs, unfortunately, are not encouraging.

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Caryn Dolly's book, The Enforcers, on Cape Town's nightclub scene documented just how deep and how high racketeering in a single industry has penetrated. Poacher by Kimon de Greef and Shuhood Abader uncovered the fierce syndicates around abalone poaching and their links to Hong Kong traders. The massive drug trade in the city still awaits its documantarist. None of these illicit enterprises have been shut down; most are growing and police corruption is often cited in these books.

To understand what is developing on the Cape Flats it is necessary to widen the aperture. 

In Cape Town, street gangs - enriched by global drug-trafficking networks and, in some cases, by direct collusion with the state, offer direct benefits to local communities. They fill gaps where state institutions or traditional coping mechanisms fail to meet local needs - paying school fees, providing food and offering protection. This ties people into collaboration.

However, the increasing penetration of organised crime results in higher levels of urban violence, increased corruption and reduced economic opportunity - all of which impact the most vulnerable in society.

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Into this mix have stepped the numbers gangs. Originally, they were entirely prison business, with secret signs, imaginary dress codes and language (sabela). The presence of high-level syndicate bosses such as Jackie Lonte in the cells in the 1990s changed that. They could offer money and drugs as well as support after release.

As foreign syndicates moved into Cape Town after 1994, street gang bosses began recruiting members to the numbers gangs outside prison walls, using their military discipline to push back against the foreigners and effectively evict them from the streets of the Cape Flats. Most street gangs are now aligned to the numbers.

Journalists like Dolly, De Greef, Abader, Jacques Pauw (The President's Keepers), Peter-Louis Myburgh (Gangster State and The Republic of Gupta) and Stephan Hofstatter (Licence to Loot) appear to have become the new investigating officers in the absence of what appears to be a police force struggling to catch up. Their evidence, however, has elicited no convictions - yet.

crime matrix

The matrix of harm caused by organised crime. (Don Pinnock)

In a seminal paper for the Institute for Security Studies (ISS), researchers Mark Shaw and Tuesday Reitano tracked the evolution of crime in Africa and came to conclusions very different from the thinking that places troops in townships and on the Cape Flats.

Traditional responses to organised crime, they found, have tended to focus on criminal groups rather than the illicit flows these groups control.

"The evolution of organised crime shows this is increasingly less valid, because traditional organised crime has turned into networks and alliances that coalesce around specific illicit supply chains."

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For each illicit goods, they said, the actors involved in sourcing, transporting, protecting and vending it would be different. To suppress a crime, you need to hit the entire supply chain, not the end-user vendors.

In Africa's burgeoning cities, that is a problem. Africa is going through a period of rapid population growth and urbanisation.

The continent's population is expected to double by 2050, growing to 2.1 billion; an unprecedented, exponential growth.

In ever-expanding cities, traditional forms of internal social cohesion can be replaced by - or mutate into - different organising principles, which include criminal syndicates and gangs.

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Without social capital and no jobs, with massive income inequality and limited state-supported service delivery, according to Shaw and Reitano, urban hubs like Johannesburg, Nairobi, Lagos, Cape Town, Dakar, Kinshasa and Addis Ababa are "becoming malignant epicentres for the spread of organised crime across the sub-continent".

Organised crime has proven its ability to adapt, change and exploit every new opportunity, forming alliances where necessary, they say, but state institutions and multilateral organisations have shown few of the same qualities. This is why these entities are on the backfoot in the face of an ever-advancing tide of criminal networks and their enterprises.

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Soldiers now on the Cape Flats are a bit like campers holding down the corner of a tent flapping in a storm when what is needed is a solid brick house. Intelligence-driven policing, in collaboration with the international justice community, is what is needed. One can only hope, behind the shield of military presence, this is taking place. Otherwise, when the soldiers leave, we will be back to square one.

* Dr Don Pinnock is a criminologist who has written extensively on gangs in his books Gang Town, Gangs, Rituals & Rites of Passage and The Brotherhoods.

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