Gang warfare is a crisis we all need to tackle
Gangs are an established part of the social geography – and pathology – of Cape Town.
They have a long history, dating back to the aftermath of the Second World War. Gang culture became entrenched as forced removals disrupted (and sometimes helped destroy) community and family cohesion. Today, more than 130 gangs with a collective membership of approximately 100,000 perpetuate social dislocation in some of the poorest communities.
While gang membership once served a “social function” giving 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 abuse (commonly known as tik) 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 South Africa’s territorial integrity on the basis of international law. It can only be deployed for internal functions in emergencies.
The “spike” of gang violence in certain Cape Town suburbs over the last 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 the South African Police Service (SAPS) to control. They need the support of the South African National Defence Force (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 melt-down 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 the single most crucial function that the SAPS alone is constitutionally empowered to undertake – investigations that produce evidence that lead to convictions in court.
Effective investigative policing is the weakest link in a generally 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, and often in broad daylight, 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. Although the Provincial Prosecution authorities contest this statistic, we are unable to get alternative information – which is part of the problem.
So, I hear you ask, what the hell are you doing about this crisis? Stop analysing it and DO something.
My answer is: I (and the provincial government) are doing what we 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 enquiry” 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, while respecting the requirement of “co-operative governance” mandated by the Constitution. 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 Police Commissioners (particularly General Bheki Cele) see this as a threat. For this reason, the provincial police hierarchy has sought to prevent and 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 (amongst other things) 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 our process is further delayed by the requirement to seek additional legal advice to take the matter further.
Our attempt, over the past seven months to establish a commission of enquiry (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 in order to give the newly appointed Commissioner, General Rhiya Phiyega, an opportunity to make an input. We hope 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 which have resulted in the SAPS meltdown.
The first is the disbanding (under Jackie Selebi’s watch) of the specialist gang and drug units. I have little doubt this was a strategy to prevent these crack units getting too close to the trail of the Commissioner’s former close friend, Glenn Agliotti.
The Western Cape government has continually lobbied for the reintroduction of the specialist units, without success. A spokesman for national Minister Mthetwha recently stated: “The introduction of specialised officers is not an option. We are moving away from the silo approaches where individual units work on their own. We want to see a more integrated approach.”
I have always thought it ironic that the only “specialised unit” that has survived is the “VIP Protection Unit”. The Police Minister and other politicians clearly recognise its value. And this reveals the hollowness of their arguments against other “specialised units”.
The assumption that an “integrated approach” can work is premised on having outstanding police officers throughout the force. But the foundations have collapsed. Unless the SAPS is rebuilt from the bottom up by recruiting young people with the capacity and skills to do the job, we cannot hope to have an efficient police force.
The small detective service (the nerve-centre of effective policing) is massively over-burdened. And they have 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. In one of the most gruesome recent killings, an 18-year old gangster shot and killed the 3 year old child of a family friend he accused of reporting his illegal firearms to the police.
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 absolute 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”.
This article by Helen Zille first appeared in SA Today, the weekly online newsletter of the leader of the Democratic Alliance.