How to steal power from the Cape Flats war lords – without the army

Members of SANDF in Manenberg. (Rodger Bosch, AFP)
Members of SANDF in Manenberg. (Rodger Bosch, AFP)

Gangs do not form by accident. In Cape Town, organised gangs have been a community force since the era of forced removals, write Mark Shaw and Simone Haysom.

Many critiques of military intervention in gang violence have been issued in the past week, and in turn they have met criticism. The one overriding response tends to be: "So what, then, do you suggest? What do we do while people are gunned down?". This riposte is entirely fair – the situation demands a response. For the state to do nothing, or at least, to continue with the tactics which have created this situation, would be both merciless and risky, ceding even more power to criminal organisations. But there are indeed other measures to be taken, which are equally bold and more necessary than boots on the ground.

Over several years of repeated engagements with South Africa's underworld, and Cape Town's in particular, we have come to think of gangsterism as a kind of ecosystem. This ecosystem has a political economy with four key elements: a user base, a recruitment engine, a violence and turf symbiosis, and a protection function (which is provided by corrupt police). All of these elements need to be tackled in order to make progress. This is because they intersect and sustain one another in a system which is held together by both concrete and symbolic activities.

The world "symbolic" may be surprising, or even seem flippant, in a context where one talks about brutal violence. But a lot of gangsterism is itself symbolic: the tattoos, the public gun fights, the murals and the cars, the hitlists and the largesse, and even the manner in which people are killed. In turn, the response to gangsterism must also have a symbolic character. This is not symbolism which is superficial or hollow: it is symbolism that communicates power and priority.

For example, the deployment of the military – in this specific instance – may be a successful use of symbolic power. The deployment might not be tactically or strategically useful (and could even be tactically or strategically harmful, if handled badly) but it does show the state's willingness to spend resources to win legitimate rule over these communities back from the violent entrepreneurs who have captured them. We focus here on gangs, but these issues of legitimacy could be linked to many other criminal networks, like elements within the taxi industry, that cause violence across the country.

To progress from this understanding to a set of solutions, it is worth asking, "How is this political economy sustained?" There are four key elements that needs addressing.

1. The user base

Organised crime networks are ultimately driven by the profits from criminal markets. This may be less obvious at the street level, where young men often launch violent reprisals for reasons of revenge, loyalty and pride, but it is certainly what drives the men who give them orders.

Creative thinking is therefore needed on how to change the market dynamics themselves. A different approach to regulation could shape a drug market which begins to take power and profit away from criminal groups, and better protects the human rights of drug users.

Currently the regulatory system has a huge impact on drug users, and hardly any (negative) impact on the leaders of drug syndicates. Aside from letting kingpins off the hook, law enforcement approaches towards drug-users have several pernicious effects: they burden people who use drugs with criminal records; clog the system up with offenders who aren't a real threat to society, which takes away resources from true threats; and lastly, they undermine the legitimacy of the police and courts in the eyes of communities where such enforcement is concentrated.

There are measures that do not require regulatory change and could be taken immediately, such as providing health services and other interventions to people with problematic user, who form a captive market for the gangs, and changing the emphasis of policing away from arrest targets and other policies whose consequences fall primarily on the users, and not vendors, of drugs.

2. The recruitment engine

Key to the gangs' survival, and the on-going, conflict, is recruitment of young men, which provides the gangs with the human tools to do the job. Recruits are attracted to gangs because they offer an alternative to a reality characterised by high unemployment, marginalisation and lack of meaning; gangs offer access to money and guns, and women. Women themselves are increasingly moving into this space, on similarly dysfunctional terms.

Junior gangs – who themselves contribute the current violence – have long been a feature of this system, because gangs want to shape control of their territory from an early stage through a process of apprenticeship. But in the last few years, senior gangs have been recruiting younger and younger members, who are more volatile and less strategic, and often have access to guns. This has been linked to a general process of fragmentation.

The only way to destabilise the recruitment engine is to instead draw young people into legitimate activities. Any serious attempt to do this would be, and would need to be, a severe break with past approaches, which have tended to see young men as perpetrators and potential perpetrators, first and foremost. If we are really to break the cycle, then there needs to be a large investment in youth and youth activities. This investment needs to be significant enough to create an intervention in young people's lives that is as formative as gang initiation and participation, but which inducts them into pro-social ways of participating in society.

3. Violence and turf symbiosis

There is no breaking the cycle of violence without removing the means of violence. While many people are still killed with knives and blunt objects, guns have changed the environment by allowing attacks to be launched from a distance, and have much more collateral damage.

Although guns are being recovered, both community members and senior gangsters say there are still guns leaking back out to the Cape Flats. It is likely that the state itself is still the single biggest source of guns in these communities. This flow must be stopped immediately, and a concerted attempt must be made to recover gun stashes. (There is also much more to say about the mismanagement of the central firearms registry and licensing system in general.) Such operations, and regulatory reform, will trigger backlash – political leaders will need to square up to issues which will embarrass the state, and confront external lobbies.

When it comes to undermining turf control, in addition to undermining the market for drugs and extortion, solutions may be found in supporting alternative community leaders. Our work elsewhere has shown the crucial role of local businesses' engagement on the issue of winning back turf. Community members also need to be protected when they report extortion, and when they resist other gang activities. To the huge credit of people living in gang-controlled areas, there are very impressive community leaders and activists working largely unrecognised in these communities. Support for them would concretely shift the balance of forces between pro- and anti-social forms of organisation.

Symbolic actions by the state to undermine turf control are also crucial: making sure community facilities remain in community hands and roads stay open, removing war murals, and a meaningful, community-driven and consistent police presence.

4. The protection function

Unfortunately, when we think through what might make a meaningful difference, all roads lead back to the fact that attempts to undermine gangsterism will fail if police corruption is not addressed. We say "unfortunately" because this is no easy task, and has no quick solution – yet it remains inescapable. With a corrupt police force, guns will continue to leak onto the street, leadership figures will continue to have impunity, state legitimacy will be eroded by abuses of power, community resistance will not be protected, and gangs will always be forewarned about raids and operations.

The protection system that gives cover to criminal networks is complex. In gang-controlled drug markets, at street level, there is the problem of semi-fixed points of sale and consumption, at which police know there are large amounts of untraceable cash and they have the leverage of immediate illegality with which to claim it. This creates incentives for corruption inherent to the illegality of drugs.

At a higher level, with the current levels of corruption and politicisation of the police force, many police operations are torn between the interests of different corrupt individuals and self-interested factions. At the same time, while there are many genuinely corrupt police officers, there are also always incentives for gangs leaders to spread rumours about those who are not corrupt. This makes the environment hard to understand, let alone to clean up.

In addition, the people at the top – the consolidating gangsters we talked about in our last piece – have links with both business and politics, in addition to police protection. This might not entail straightforward corruption, but who they are seen with, and who they do business with, plays a vital role in legitimising them, and deflecting both public pressure and law enforcement attention from their activities. Building state legitimacy will require denying this legitimacy to people who have known links.

On the issue of police corruption, we may need to bite the bullet, and go through another process of police reform.

As a closing point, there is a final insight that guides our thinking about the solutions, and what value might be drawn from the military intervention. This is that the conditions on the Cape Flats are not a story of 2019 – these conditions have been the everyday reality for hundreds of thousands of Capetonians for many years.

Gangs do not form by accident. Globally, all gang structures are the product of exclusion and misplaced social policy; without intervention, over time they come to sustain themselves. In Cape Town, organised gangs have been a community force since the era of forced removals, but have become dramatically more powerful and violent with the post-apartheid integration into international drug markets. In particular, the murder rate has been skyrocketing since 2011, most probably due to the injection of state guns onto the Cape Flats and increased flows of drugs.

Yet, despite the fact that throughout the last eight years, ambulances were denied entry, schools were closed so that children would not be exposed to cross-fire, and each week young men went onto the streets to kill and be killed, the country, and its decision makers, seemed content for this to be so. This has deepened the feeling that coloured and black people in Cape Town are "surplus", dispensible "refugees", and the violence around them, inevitable.

In the last few weeks, the political attention given the issue, and the army deployment, which visually represents this attention, may shift this label to "priority". This is symbolic power at work, and to that extent, it is an opportunity that should not be wasted.

However, for all the reasons implied in our previous piece and in many other contributions these past few weeks, this deployment must be short lived. Too much can go wrong – reversing any state gains into failure – when an inappropriate force is applied to a sensitive problem.

In its place, there are many other ways to steal power – symbolic and concrete – from the war lords of the Cape Flats.

- Mark Shaw is the director of the Global Initiative against Transnational Organised Crime (GI TOC) and is working on a book about the illegal sale of state weapons to the South African underworld. Simone Haysom is a senior analyst at GI TOC and the author of The Last Words of Rowan du Preez: Murder and Conspiracy on the Cape Flats

Disclaimer: News24 encourages freedom of speech and the expression of diverse views. The views of columnists published on News24 are therefore their own and do not necessarily represent the views of News24.

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