Tens of thousands of Capetonians depend on gangs for a living and police are rendered powerless to intervene.
Locking up the gangsters will have little impact on the Cape's multimillion-rand underworld economy, which has become so sophisticated that it operates along the lines of multinational corporations.
Lucrative drug-dealing, the sex industry and the fencing of stolen goods yield rich profits, which are often invested in legitimate businesses including hotels, fishing, taxis and nightclubs.
Top consultants and accountants are employed by the gangs and sit in on advanced strategy meetings and advise on investments.
New research published by the Institute of Security Studies shows that gangsterism is an economy - with a basic "workforce" of 120 000 gang members, mostly across the Cape Flats - that reaches into the formal economy, the professions, business, local government and even the police.
On the Cape Flats, entire communities are dependent on gangs. Organised crime and the economy it sustains stem in large measure from the polarised wealth of the city, according to researcher André Standing.
For vast numbers of poor and jobless people in Cape Town, the world of organised crime is often their only hope of an income.
But Standing says that even those who are dependent on gangs are their victims in various ways, ranging from the physical risks of death and injury, to the social and economic costs of being trapped in a cycle of dependency that offers little hope of a better life.
On Monday the Cape Argus kicks off a four-day, in-depth exposé of Gangland (Pty) Ltd, a logo created as a device to shift public attention away from gangsterism as a criminal problem to the more complex nature of underworld business.
As Standing explains in one report on Monday, the criminal economy "is filling a vacuum which the state is not filling".
This is in areas, he says, that the formal economy has neglected because they are unprofitable or commercially unimportant.
"And in these areas you find the criminal economy becoming increasingly important."
Standing says the usual view of gangsterism is that it is "anti-social and loathsome" and "a social virus".
But in areas such as the Cape Flats, "while the related violence will never cease to shock and depress, the criminal economy cannot be perceived as a force that is simply an external threat to society".
His report argues that it is no longer a fringe activity perpetrated by outsiders who can be easily separated from a legal society of good citizens.
"On the Cape Flats, the criminal economy is substantial, its various boundaries blur with other economic and social activities, and it involves thousands of people.
"It is therefore a core dimension of the community."
It is estimated gang leaders order and control more than 70 percent of all crime across the Mother City.
The Cape Flats gangs have become so evolved that they trade on a regular basis with Chinese Triads and other violent mobs around the world.
And huge profits earned from legitimate and illicit businesses are used to pay off several police officers, as well as local government officials, well-paid professionals and businessmen.