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Gangs are an established part of the social geography – and pathology – of Cape Town. They have a long history, dating from the aftermath of World War II.
Gang culture became entrenched as forced removals disrupted community and family cohesion.
Today, more than 130 gangs, with a collective membership of about 100 000, perpetuate social dislocation in some of the poorest communities. While gang membership once gave young people a sense of “belonging” within a hierarchy of control, the focus has shifted to violent turf wars over the lucrative drug trade. The explosion of crystal methamphetamine (tik) abuse has intensified gang warfare and spread its tentacles into new areas, such as Khayelitsha and Nyanga, with devastating consequences.
One of the core functions of the state is to provide security for its citizens, which it does primarily through the institutions of the criminal justice system – the police, the prosecution services, the courts and prisons. The role of the army is to defend SA’s territorial integrity on the basis of international law. It can be deployed for internal functions only in emergencies.
The “spike” of gang violence in certain Cape Town suburbs over the past few months (during which at least 23 people, including seven children, have died) is such an emergency. Of the total number of deaths, 17 have occurred in just two suburbs – Hanover Park and Lavender Hill. Many of the dead were innocent bystanders, caught in the crossfire.
After careful consideration, I and my cabinet colleagues have concluded that the current situation is beyond the capacity of SAPS to control. It needs the support of the SANDF to restore order.
But the intervention of the army can only be temporary and must happen under the command of the SAPS. Although we correctly describe the retributive violence between gangs as “warfare”, we are not in a civil war. This means that the role of the army is merely to create the space for the police to do their jobs effectively.
The question is, can they? The meltdown in the top hierarchy of the police has cascaded down the ranks like wax off a burning candle. And it is showing in low morale, high rates of absenteeism, and an inability to perform its single most crucial function – investigations that produce evidence that lead to convictions in court.
Effective investigative policing is the weakest link in a fragile criminal justice chain. And until we get this right, we will not find a long-term solution to gang violence. The metro police cannot make up for SAPS failures either. While the metro police have made 108 gang-related arrests since January, they must hand the cases over to the SAPS for investigation.
Gangsters shoot to kill with impunity because they believe they will get away with it. And they usually do. According to the SAPS in the Western Cape, there has not been a single conviction over the past three years in the 87 cases of gang-related murder and attempted murder reported in Hanover Park.
So, I hear you ask, what the hell are you doing about this crisis? Stop analysing it and do something.
The provincial government is certainly doing what it can. The truth is that the constitution empowers us to do very little when it comes to policing and nothing at all when it comes to the SANDF, the prosecution services and the rest of the criminal justice system. Under section 206 of the constitution, the province’s powers are limited to “monitoring” and “oversight” of the SAPS. And, as premier, I also have the power to establish a “commission of inquiry” to investigate “complaints of police inefficiency or a breakdown in relations between the police and any community”.
We are trying to use these powers to their full extent. Our biggest problem is that, instead of recognising the value of provincial “oversight” or “monitoring” to improve policing, the national police minister, Nathi Mthethwa, and previous commissioners (particularly Bheki Cele) see this as a threat. For this reason, the police hierarchy has sought to impede the provincial government’s oversight powers at every turn.
They have, for example, denied us access to the most basic management information we require.
And they have even sought to prevent us monitoring the work of police stations.
To resolve this impasse, we are trying to define and codify our duties of “monitoring” and “oversight” in a provincial law. Earlier this year we sent out the Western Cape Community Safety Bill for public comment.
After months of delay, the national ministry has informed us that we are exceeding our constitutional mandate. And so the process is further delayed while we seek additional legal advice to take the matter further.
Our attempt, over the past seven months, to establish a commission of inquiry (to investigate the causes of vigilante murders in Khayelitsha) has met with even more resistance. I have extended the deadline for comment from the SAPS by several weeks to give the newly appointed commissioner, General Riah Phiyega, an opportunity to make an input. We hope that she will see the value of a partnership, where each sphere of government carries out its assigned constitutional functions, and works together to overcome a serious problem that confronts us all.
But even under present circumstances it is possible to identify the various contributing factors that have resulted in the SAPS meltdown.
The first is the disbanding (under Jackie Selebi’s watch) of the specialist gang and drug units.
The Western Cape government has continually lobbied for the reintroduction of the specialist units, without success.
I have always thought it ironic that the only “specialised unit” that has survived is the VIP protection unit. This reveals the hollowness of the police minister’s arguments against other specialised units.
The small detective service is massively overburdened. And it has to contend with the difficulties of collecting evidence in a context where most witnesses refuse to provide it.
This is not surprising given the retribution the gangs visit upon any willing witness.
There is a long uphill battle ahead in the fight against gangsterism and drugs in the Western Cape. And the state cannot do it alone. Even the most efficient criminal justice system cannot compensate for dysfunctional families or absent and violent fathers. Parents have just as much responsibility to “break the cycle” as we do.
Neighbourhood watches, community police forums, NGOs and many mothers often play a heroic role in holding these communities together and I pay tribute to them for doing so.
It is an tragedy that some have become targets of gangsters, demonstrating the extent of the crisis we face.
Members of communities actively trying to build and preserve safety deserve specific protection.
Our Mass Opportunity and Development Centres, which operate at a range of schools in poor communities after school hours, are designed to keep children off the streets, out of the hands of drug dealers, and engaged in productive activities before their parents return home from work. If we are to turn around the crisis of Lavender Hill and Hanover Park (and prevent it spreading), we must do so in a partnership, not only between the three spheres of government, but with every member of the community as well. That is what we mean when we say “better together”. - Cape Argus
* Helen Zille is the premier of the Western Cape