The Army Can’t Solve Gangsterism in Cape Flats

The employment of the SANDF to Western Cape hotspots may bring a brief halt to the spike in gang-related murders plaguing the Cape Flats. It will not present a long-term solution, since it cannot remotely address the problem’s numerous and complex underlying causes. Causes which...

1079 0
1079 0

The employment of the SANDF to Western Cape hotspots may bring a brief halt to the spike in gang-related murders plaguing the Cape Flats. It will not present a long-term solution, since it cannot remotely address the problem’s numerous and complex underlying causes.

Causes which have, after sporadic periods of joint police and military interventions spanning more than two decades, never been meaningfully addressed. And there is no reason to believe that things will be different this time.

The military employment, and de facto martial law it entails, is certainly a coveted political football for both the ANC and the DA. And both parties are trying their best to kick the stuffing out of it.

Sadly, the situation may well be exacerbated, and not mitigated, by the SANDF employment.

Causes of Gangsterism and Violence in the Cape Flats

The socioeconomic causes of gangs and gang violence are varied and well-documented.

The Cape Flats have suffered spiraling unemployment rates in the wake of the textile industry’s collapse between 2002 and 2013, which shed over 110 000 jobs. The aftereffects of the collapse are felt to this day.

Add to this that South Africa is suffering its longest sustained economic downturn since 1945, and that our macroeconomic situation is highly unstable, and it is reasonable to conclude that employment prospects are dire.

Additionally, a disproportionate number of children growing up in the Cape Flats are from single-parent households, with absent and unknown fathers. Many live below the poverty line, and are dependent on state welfare for survival.

Lastly, the majority of people living in these neighbourhoods have low levels of formal education: a further damper on their economic and social prospects.

Therefore, in the Cape Flats we find a terrible recipe for misery, destitution, desperation, and high levels of interpersonal violence. And we have a fertile breeding ground for gangsterism, substance abuse and violent crime.

Young men are not drawn so much by the economic prospects of being members of a gang, but rather by the power and prestige associated with it. South African gangs have a long history that predates the struggle, and they proudly leverage this pedigree to recruit and retain their members.

While there certainly are plentiful opportunities to gain income via the various criminal activities associated with gang membership, this is hardly the primary driving force.

Government and Police Failure at Addressing the Problem

In spite of the aforementioned conditions and their consequences, Jackie Selebi (the then SAPS national commissioner) disbanded the Western Cape police’s specialised gang unit in 2003. History has not judged this decision favourably. And while there have been crackdowns and anti-gang operations between then and now, they ultimately resulted in abysmal defeat.

No meaningful community partnerships were established. Neither has there been any coordinated cooperation between law enforcement, social workers, and community leaders. Instead the relationship between the community and those tasked with policing them has steadily deteriorated over the last 16 years, in clear violation of the Peelian Principles of Policing.

One can only police a community with their consent. And when that consent breaks down, so does law enforcement.

With the SAPS facing a R6 billion budget cut (which is perhaps closer to R9 billion if my sources are accurate), the police’s chronic failure to fulfill its constitutional mandate is not likely to be reversed.

This amounts to a cut between 7% and 11%, and infers between 10 000 and 13 000 fewer police officers on our streets nationwide. That is if the cuts are applied proportionally, which they most certainly won’t be: there are too many sacred cows, like the VIP protection units, that won’t be touched. Policing will decline, crime intelligence gathering will be further gutted, and police resources will not be procured and issued where they are needed most.

Add to this that the police are most certainly infiltrated and corrupted by criminals, including various gangs who openly boast about it, and the ability of the SAPS to do its job becomes a mere fantasy as opposed to an attainable reality.

The folly of deploying the SANDF

But surely this is exactly why the military employment to the Flats is justified?


Firstly, the military is entirely unsuited for use in a law enforcement role. And it was never designed to be. I have written extensively about the folly of applying the SANDF in this context before. But a brief glance at the SANDF’s constitutional mandate is sufficient for this purpose.

The SANDF’s mandate is to:

  1. Defend against aggression
  2. Promote security
  3. Support the people of South Africa

It is the third point that allows the employment of the SANDF in “cooperation with the SA Police Service.”

We must note the very important limitation imposed upon the SANDF: “This assistance excludes police functions such as criminal investigation, arresting suspects, preparing dockets and involvement in the criminal justice system.”

So, the soldiers are not allowed to arrest anyone. Nor can they perform any other rudimentary police functions. They are literally only there as a visible show of force.

Secondly, the results of previous joint operations between the military and police in crime hotspots are at best inconclusive. More realistically, they have not achieved any meaningful difference. Crime and homicide rates either don’t respond at all, or rapidly return to (and in many cases exceed) levels prior to the crackdown.

This brings into question the entire justification of subjecting citizens to what is effectively martial law. Especially if it appears to be nothing more than superficial politicking at the expense of the public.

Lastly, the employment of the SANDF to “stabilise the situation” in the Cape Flats may in fact serve to benefit some gangs.

The Business Model of a Gang

In August 2000 the Quarterly Journal of Economics published a study by Levitt and Venkatesh. Among other insightful findings, the authors compared the structure and functioning of an inner-city Chicago crack gang with that of a franchise company. There is a central leadership that acts as franchisors, and local leaders who act as franchisees with various underlings below them in rank. The gang also faces various overhead and operating costs that are offset against their revenue.

Now, I am not going to pretend that this model is directly applicable to Cape Flats gangs. There are after all some marked differences between the two population groups. Where the inner-city Chicago gang generated most of its revenue from a single specialised activity – selling crack cocaine – the Cape Flats gangs are much more diversified in their economic activities.

Trafficking in abalone is one of the biggest (if not the biggest) income generators for gangs, but they also deal in drugs (especially tik and heroin), prostitution, extortion of money from people under their “protection”, and numerous other criminal activities that supplement their income (such as robbery, burglary, hijacking and theft). Hence Cape Flats gangs are less vulnerable to disruption in a single criminal activity, but it would still cost them revenue and profits.

Our gangs also contain an element of chaos and disorganisation that is lacking in the Chicago example. But I think the model is robust enough to satisfy my intentions with it.

Gang Wars are Expensive

Gang wars cost lives and lost profits. The violence drives customers away, and causes a negative demand shock. In the Levitt and Venkatesh study, gang wars are associated with a drop of 20-30 percent in both the quantity and price of drugs sold. Hence the drug-selling side of the operation becomes significantly less profitable.

The reason for the decline in quantity should be obvious – drug dealers tend to run or hide when they are getting shot at. And spend less time plying their trade. In order to compensate for possible losses in market share, the gang then drops the price of their product in order to prevent customers from switching to other sources.

Additionally, gang wars increase costs. Compensation to the gang’s “foot soldiers” increase during periods of warfare in order to motivate them to fight. Chicago gangs also contract in “mercenaries” (fighters who are not gang members) in order to bolster their lines during fighting, which also costs money.

Wars also drive the need for gangs to acquire weapons. Many weapons are stolen from military bases and police stations, and this has happened regularly in the past – including fully-automatic rifles, hand grenades, and even anti-tank weapons. But thousands of guns are also purchased from corrupt members of the South African Police Service (the most infamous example being Colonel Chris Prinsloo). Buying these illicit weapons cost money.

Clearly gang wars are an exceptionally costly method of dispute resolution. But due to the absence of legally enforceable property rights and contracts as far as criminal enterprises are concerned, it is the only method for the disputing parties to settle their differences.

If Gang Wars are Expensive, Why Do They Happen?

So, if gang wars are bad for business, why do gangs so frequently indulge in them? As previously mentioned, it is the only effective method of inter-gang dispute resolution. And it is the criminal method of performing a hostile takeover of a rival.

There is only so much territory available to exploit for drug sales and other resources, and much of it is controlled by opposing gangs. The only way to increase the size of your turf, and your command over this market share and resources, is to violently take it from your rival.

You obviously cannot buy or trade territory you don’t legally own or have usage rights to.

The consequences of such a hostile-takeover-sans-lawyers, is that there will certainly be reprisals by rival gangs. This leads to an increasing spiral of violence and death. Hence where the situation is today.

Such violence is in itself disruptive to many economic activities gangs participate in. Gangs should technically only indulge in turf wars if they know the net benefits of controlling the new territory exceed the costs of gaining and holding it. But because economics aren’t the only driving factors that motivate gang violence, it wouldn’t be surprising if such wars are a net loss to all involved.

Some lower-ranking gang members or local leaders use wars to increase their personal power and prestige. Which would frequently be beneficial to them, but bad for the larger gang’s business. A period of peace and quiet may actually benefit some gangs and their leadership.

The SANDF and the Law of Unintended Consequences

By employing the SANDF in a joint operation with the SAPS, the military are acting as custodians of gang territory. The gangs know that attacks on their turf by rivals are unlikely during this period, and they can instead focus on consolidating their internal structures and plying their various criminal trades for profit. Conversely, rivals who intend to perform hostile takeovers would rather bide their time and pool their resources.

That being said, the gangs are not afraid of the SANDF or the SAPS – they have had extensive historical experience with them, and they know these organisations are lazy and incompetently led. The police are also sufficiently infiltrated and corrupted, so any disruption to important gang activity is easily mitigated.

The gangs are also aware that this joint operation is of a highly temporary nature, and that it is effectively nothing more than political posturing with the intent of creating the impression that something is being done. Despite the show of force, the government is desperate to avoid any situation that resembles another Marikana. And the gangs are aware of this too.

If the military presence on the Flats becomes an excessive annoyance, the soldiers and their commanding officers will simply be corrupted and paid-off, or ambushed and killed in the manner which is done to SAPS members. Considering that gangs have raided military bases for weapons and ammunition numerous times, they are certainly not hesitant to bring violence to the SANDF.

The additional fact that there has only been a slight decline in murder on the Flats, and nowhere near a complete cessation of hostilities, also indicate that even with a heavy military and police presence on the streets in the midst of a crackdown, it really is very much business as usual for the gangs.

The central leadership know that they won’t be touched. As soon as the military pulls out, the consolidated and reorganised lower structures can openly wage war again. And do so more viciously than before.

Long-lasting Real Solutions are Entirely Absent

This entire exercise will be nothing more than a waste of time and resources. There is a complete absence of the many multi-faceted solutions that we need to solve this crisis.

Perhaps because many of them are long-term and low-key commitments that don’t make for slick and sexy politicking.

But until highly specialised anti-gang units are trained, equipped, and deployed to the troubled areas, along with good crime intelligence gathering, and bring the gang leadership to book, nothing will change.

Until our government gets out of the private sector’s way, and economic and education opportunities (and entrepreneurship) begins to flourish, many young people will not have a way out of the misery and destitution they are caught in.

And until we empower communities to take ownership of their safety and security situation, and give them all the required support in this regard, there cannot be any meaningful partnership between law enforcement and the community it is tasked with policing.

These failures will ensure the status quo of spiralling substance abuse, child neglect, interpersonal violence, criminality, and death is maintained into perpetuity.

And all the king’s horses, and all the king’s men, cannot put Lavender Hill together again.

In this article

Leave a Reply

Rational Standard