Westbury, Eldos study: Cop corruption and complicity in crime an impediment to stopping gang violence

Westbury residents clash with riot police during a protest. (AFP, file)
Westbury residents clash with riot police during a protest. (AFP, file)

A new study examining gang-related violence in Johannesburg's western suburbs has highlighted how police corruption and complicity have been major factors in impeding attempts to break the cycle of violence in these areas.

This week, the Global Initiative Against Transnational Organised Crime published its study, Ending the Cycles of Violence, which looks at the gangs, protests and violence in western Johannesburg between 1994 and 2019.

The report focuses on gang-engendered violence in Johannesburg's western suburbs of Westbury and Eldorado Park. It forms part of a project intended to contribute to a better understanding of gang evolution in South Africa.

Those interviewed included residents, civil society representatives, the police, municipal officials, gang members and leaders.

Johannesburg's western neighbourhoods have long experienced serious problems derived from the presence of drug gangs and other forms of organized crime, resulting in a cyclical pattern of violence and criminality, followed by backlashes in the form of protests and state responses.

According to the report, law-enforcement interventions have generally only temporarily quelled the violence before another cycle of gang activity, violence and protests flared up once again. Such continual cycles have been the pattern defining this urban area since the early 1990s. The costs of crime borne by the residents of western Johannesburg are high and it is essential to reverse the cycle of violence and despair for these communities to thrive.

Three cycles of violence

The study tracks the origins of gang formation in western Johannesburg during apartheid, a time when gangs like the Americans, Berliners, Gestapos and Vultures operated in Sophiatown. It also examines how the Group Areas Act, introduced in 1950, along with forced removals and economic dispossession of people of non-European ethnicity had a profound impact on the communities in these areas.

But it zooms in on three specific time periods.

The first "cycle" from 1994 to 1999 was defined by extreme violence and then a gang truce, which was the result of the Westbury peace process in early 1999 when gang leaders from the Vultures, Fast Guns and Varados met at Southgate Mall along with religious leaders to make peace. The second cycle, from 2000 to 2013, saw the emergence of new criminal drug lords controlling the illicit market, a drug surge and a spate of protests by residents that resulted in a visit from then-president Jacob Zuma. The third cycle, 2014 to 2018, looks at the consolidation of prominent crime figures in these suburbs such as "Keenan" (Keenan Ebrahim) and "Finch" (Leroy Brown), the complicity of corrupt police officers and how Johannesburg gangs are linked to those in the Cape.

Westbury crime

Breaking the cycle of violence

The Global Initiative study looks at the response to the cycles of violence by the government and law enforcement authorities, which most recently included a visit by Police Minister Bheki Cele in October 2018. It found that "these interventions, however, proved to be largely ineffective in providing an enduring, sustainable remedy to the gang- and drug-related violence".

Instead, the researchers argue that perhaps the most effective intervention was from gang leaders during the Westbury peace process.

"The three broad phases of violence that have been described here demonstrate the enormous difficulty of implementing successful state interventions in communities that often consider themselves marginalized and 'forgotten', and where gang formations have wielded important social influence over time. Ironically, the most successful intervention to reduce the violence over the two-and-a-half decades that this research analysed appears to have come from the gang bosses themselves [although there is evidence to suggest that their initiative was partly in response to police arrests and other actions]."

The report suggests that perhaps the most significant factor that impeded a breakthrough in disrupting the cycle of violence in western Johannesburg - at least on the basis of community accounts - was that members of the local police became complicit in the drugs trade.

"In Westbury and Eldorado Park, the bigger gangs had police officers on their payroll. These officers would raid rival gangs and bring drugs seized during these raids to the gangs they worked with; the police would also warn the gangs of raids in advance."

The distrust between residents and the police has resulted in protests and mob justice to deal with criminal elements because the community feels that the justice system is failing them.

"And the fact that innocent residents have been killed in recent years by stray bullets of warring gangs suggests that state interventions in the form of an increased police presence in the affected neighbourhoods have not been successful in deterring the gangsters. Alleged police complicity with the gangsters has furthermore inevitably eroded the efficacy of the state's policy response in the form of cyclical law enforcement crackdowns."

There have been numerous initiatives by residents to collectively respond to gangs and drugs with communities taking to the streets in protest. However, residents who have led initiatives and spoken out against criminals have been threatened by gangs. The researchers say that this coupled with the employment of violence by gangs to earn respect, means the violence is likely to continue.

"It is essential that we seriously advocate for more sustainable and effective approaches to policing of the gangs. However, to do this, the police would need to acknowledge what has gone wrong with their previous approaches. The police also need to ensure that all interventions are properly monitored and evaluated throughout their implementation. Any new police and government operation in the area would need to take account of the lessons of the past. Failure to do so will result in the cycle of violence continuing."

Five lessons for the cops

The researchers have drawn five conclusions from past experiences that serve as lessons for the police and government leaders.

Gangs aim to outlast police operations - They found that police operations are often short-lived and do not have a long-lasting effect on gangs. The response from the police often takes the form of temporary emergency relief to a crisis. "In the final analysis, the gangs and drug lords in the period under study were essentially able to outlast the police, with law enforcement interventions scaling down once the spotlight on the area had been removed." They found that such actions can often leave residents in a more vulnerable position than before the operation and also creates the impression that the police are merely conducting a public relations exercise.

Arrests, communication and the numbers game - Residents have complained that  during high-visibility operations, police arrest drug users and do not deal with higher level dealers. "Greater police transparency around who has been arrested and what happens after an arrest are essential information given the deficit of trust that exists between the police and residents affected by gang and drug violence." High profile arrests accompanied by effective communication around the police response would go some way in rebuilding community confidence in the cops. They see the recent court appearances of Keenan and Finch as showing potential.

Corrupt and inefficient policing is at the heart of lost state legitimacy - The report finds that there is a trust deficit between the community and the authorities. It warns against the police perpetuating the narrative that residents support the gangs, either tacitly or actively. It says that this stance adopted by the police is not only wholly inaccurate but also negates the serious risk that residents put themselves at to stand up against the gangs. "Whatever strategy is implemented by the police, its success will hinge on whether the police openly and honestly address the issue of systemic corruption in the police service. This cannot happen as long as the police continue to pass corruption off as a case of a few isolated, unconnected examples. Both the gangs and the police recruit people from each other's ranks."

Failed policing of drug markets and access to firearms have contributed to gangs' criminal control over other markets - The growth of the drug economy in western Johannesburg has been a defining feature of gang consolidation and growing levels of violence as gangs battle for control and drug turf. The illegal drug trade means that gangs have access to considerably more finances, which empowers their ability to expand into other areas of the grey economy, bribe state officials and access firearms. "Drug profits have enabled the gangs to procure more guns, and the guns enable control of more drug turf and higher profits. It is a vicious spiral that must be broken if the overall challenge of gangs and their influence is to be solved."

Gang operations across the country are now strongly connected - The research suggests strong interconnections between events in western Johannesburg and the role of powerful criminal actors from the Cape. "Although these criminal relationships are not new, what does seem to have emerged is the degree to which the supply of drugs [and thus the control of the local criminal economy] is relatively centralized." These links require the police to move away from some of the narrow geographical approaches and start looking at more nationally linked opportunities for co-operation. "Much of the state response to gangs has been localized, but, increasingly, a national response is needed to tackle the problem," suggest the authors.

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