Sending in the army is like kissing the Cape Flats better with a Band Aid strip, writes Tony Weaver

Cape Town is at the centre of a perfect storm of drugs, guns, gangs and external connections, and old hierarchies have broken down. 

First published in Die Burger, July 23 2019

This column is about a different kind of wildlife, and a different kind of environmental destruction – the environmental destruction of living in gangster hell on the Cape Flats surrounded by the wildlife in the gangs.

The gangs have been around for over 200 years. Johnny Steinberg, in his seminal book, The Number, writes that the legend of the Number Gangs goes back to possibly 1812, and two outlaws called Nongoloza and Kilikijan. Nongoloza’s followers become the 28s, Kilikijan’s the 27s. Prison society in the Western Cape today is built on the Numbers.

The gangs became even more entrenched under apartheid, as entire communities were forcibly removed to the bleakness of the Cape Flats.

The apartheid view of the Cape Flats. Photo: Wikicommons (KennyOMG)

But the dynamic has changed: crime is now a transnational enterprise, and the ordinary gangsters of the Cape Flats are just foot soldiers of powerful criminal syndicates that deal in drugs, guns, cigarettes, wildlife products like abalone, rhino horn, ivory, pangolins and timber, and every other illicit product under the sun.

As Mark Shaw and Simone Haysom of the Global Initiative against Transnational Organised Crime write, “the current surge in violence owes itself to both factors that arise inside the community and to those pushed upon it by the city’s illicit connections to the global economy. It is this combination of internal and external factors which intersect to drive high levels of violence, giving the situation echoes of Central American carnage.”

Perfect storm

Battles for territorial control, and an alienated youth with staggering levels of unemployment all feed into this, and Cape Town is at the centre of a “perfect storm” of drugs, guns, gangs and external connections, and old hierarchies have broken down.

Corruption and State Capture mean that “after a disastrous decade for the criminal justice system, we have organised criminal networks that are more nationally (and internationally) connected than they have ever been before… The flow of guns and drugs that have enabled the current violence has entered communities from outside, due to corruption.”

So how the hell do we solve this problem? Sending the army in is just kissing it better with a Band Aid strip.

Life sentences

I have no background in criminology, but it seems a no-brainer to make gun crime very expensive: legislate mandatory life sentences for any crime involving an illegal firearm, whether fired or not, with no parole for 20 years.

Our communities are awash with crystal meth (tik), cocaine, heroin and a variety of other drugs, and mixtures.

So completely decriminalise drug use. Make it legal to smoke tik, shoot heroin, whatever takes your fancy. Drug dealing or trafficking stays a serious criminal offence.

Make drugs cheap

But do it in an organised way, like Portugal, where drug crime has been slashed. Make the state the only licensed dealer. Make the drugs dirt cheap – or give them away.
Set up state clinics where only the best quality drugs are available, with clean needles. Remove the stigma around drug use and provide counselling.

Destroy the drug market. Remove the main source of income for the crime syndicates.

That, and removing illegal guns, would be a good first step to rebuilding our communities and bringing peace to the Cape Flats.

  • Tony Weaver is a freelance photo-journalist, environment writer, columnist and editor.