Taking on the Gangs in Cape Town

How local officials in a township in post-apartheid South Africa confronted the challenge of gang violence.

Photo from Youtube
Photo from Youtube
Photo from Youtube

Note: This article is an abridged version of a longer historical case study produced by Innovations for Successful Societies, a research program at Princeton University.

Note: This article is an abridged version of a longer historical case study produced by Innovations for Successful Societies, a research program at Princeton University.

In August 1999, a tornado devastated the Cape Flats, a working-class area on the outskirts of Cape Town. Hardest hit was Manenberg, a neighborhood known for gang violence and drug trafficking. Shortly after the tornado tore through blocks of public housing apartments, looters took to the streets to plunder homes and storefronts.

The tornado exacerbated the city’s existing problems. City employees struggled to deliver services in the crossfire of gang warfare, and health workers feared that by treating wounded gang members, they might inadvertently bring the violence into the clinics. Ahmedi Vawda, who led Cape Town’s Directorate of Community Development, or ComDev — responsible for improving residents’ access to resources, services, and decision making — recalled that the city officials suddenly had to ask themselves, "Who runs Manenberg? Do we run Manenberg?" They saw the devastation wrought by the tornado as a chance to reassert the government’s authority and credibility in a community that felt abandoned to the gangs.

Neighborhoods like Manenberg suffered from long histories of discrimination and neglect. Under the apartheid government, the 1950 Group Areas Act forced the removal of black and "colored" families from Cape Town’s developed inner-city neighborhoods. (The term "colored" denoted those of mixed race who possessed some black African ancestry.) Many families relocated to Manenberg, approximately 15 kilometers outside the Cape Town city center; these areas had limited access to government services and economic opportunities. Along with the booming drug trade, unemployment fueled gang activities throughout the 1980s and 1990s.

Vawda’s job was to establish social development efforts to reduce poverty levels, but he and ComDev officials worried that asserting the presence of local government might spark a dangerous backlash from the gangs. They had to seek a more subtle approach. Through the lens of a popular counterculture, gang leaders were often viewed as Robin Hood figures battling against the injustices the community faced. For young, unemployed residents who had few economic prospects, promotion to leadership positions in the gangs (often based on reputations for violence) became a source of pride. Although gangs relied heavily on intimidation and the threat of violence to control swaths of territory, they also provided a variety of support services — loans, food, protection — that bought them a certain level of respect and credibility.

Not all community members, however, bowed to the burgeoning influence of the gangs. Vigilante organizations sprang up as a reaction to the lack of government security. In August 1996, the assassination of a prominent gang leader brought national attention to the situation and caused a war between the gangs and the vigilantes; police lost control of the streets. In Manenberg, gangs in effect supplanted the government as the legitimate civil authority. According to the South African Police, more than 130 gangs operated in Cape Town with more than 80,000 members — in a city of just over 2.5 million.

With as many as 50 shootings reported monthly in early 1998, many municipal workers in the Cape Flats feared for their safety as they tried to do their jobs. The residents of the community distrusted outsiders, not knowing whether gang members would retaliate if they accepted offers of government help. Gangs had a vested interest in making sure that government workers did not interfere, especially with regards to housing, where gangs often decided on evictions and subletting.

Vawda reasoned that in order to think of themselves as sharing responsibility for the welfare of their neighbors, residents had to have a better sense of what citizenship meant. In what he described as "particularly traumatized communities" like Manenberg, Vawda saw the need to build new norms of active citizenship and community participation so as to enable residents to make intelligent choices. By fostering stronger relationships between the community, community organizations, and city officials, ComDev hoped to limit the influence of the gangs in residents’ everyday lives, build a sustainable framework of shared public service delivery, and reconstitute community confidence.

Vawda worked closely with Ivan Toms, Cape Town’s director of health. A respected physician who had been a prominent anti-apartheid activist in the field of community health, Toms gave ComDev’s efforts a public face and a strategic focus for reforms. To achieve sustained reductions in homicides and other crimes, the local government would have to address the underlying reasons that young people joined gangs and participated in violence. Vawda and Toms had a team review the city’s levels of development and deprivation. In addition to the 1996 census data on education and unemployment, Vawda’s team gathered health sector statistics on maternal mortality, infections, HIV/AIDS, tuberculosis, teenage pregnancies, nutrition, and so on. Vawda and Toms looked for areas where steep unemployment coincided with high rates of tuberculosis and HIV; by overlaying health statistics with socioeconomic data and incidents of violent crime, they were able to designate six geographic zones in need of ComDev’s intervention. Manenberg and its surrounding neighborhoods ranked as the most urgent.

At the time, the national South African Police Service took a hard line in its attempts to suppress gang activity. Likewise, the national government drafted legislation that criminalized gang membership and set harsh punishments. In discussing the best way of establishing a foothold in the community, the ComDev team initially considered whether to take a hard line similar to that of the national police. Some endorsed informal dialogues with the gangs in order to facilitate service delivery and protect their workers. Initially, Vawda worried that talking to the gangs would only grant them greater authority, and thought it best to operate in spite of the gangs and avoid legitimizing their presence.

But an incident in February 1998 caused Vawda to doubt this approach. Cape Town’s new director of housing, Billy Cobbett, wanted to impose order on the chaotic housing committee. He identified cases where gangs had forcefully removed residents and taken over buildings, and obtained court orders for the city to reclaim the residences. But when the police went in to force the eviction, they quickly found themselves surrounded by armed gang members. Cobbett refused to negotiate or rescind the order. The gang issued kidnapping and death threats against him and his family; soon after Cobbett fled with his family. The episode illustrated the challenge of government intervention in the Cape Flats, and left Vawda searching for ways to communicate directly with the community without agitating the gangs.

He decided to have ComDev focus on less confrontational issues. They would ask residents to make critical decisions about the kinds of programs and projects their neighborhoods valued most. The participatory element would help build trust and was aimed to forge new norms of engagement between community and city councils. "There was a debate about whether we were taking on the gangs or not," Vawda said. "And we were. But we were not taking them on as gangs, but the predominance of their influence… What we were trying to do was reclaim public services in the name of the community and [establish] that the community has a right to shape them, to be a party to the processes involved."

Vawda and Toms created Area Coordinating Teams, or ACTs, to encourage community participation in influencing budget allocations for local development efforts. The teams — comprised of local councillors, city officials, other government officials, and leaders of community-based organizations — met monthly to gather information on local conditions and to discuss potential courses of action. The meetings were open to the public (ComDev actively recruited community and religious leaders in order to ensure that key stakeholders were present), giving a voice to residents while not entering into direct confrontation with the gangs.

The August 1999 tornado that swept through the Cape Flats — with Manenberg at the center of the destruction — prompted Vawda and Toms to open an ACT forum in Manenberg. Vawda’s team had coordinated the city’s emergency aid and reconstruction programs, and established strong relationships with community leaders and local council representatives. Toms agreed to chair the Manenberg ACT, lending it a prominent name. But he needed to convene the right kinds of people so that the ACTs would be effective: He created a team of experienced community activists in order to facilitate meetings, manage the participating parties and agencies, and schedule follow-up.

When the first meeting of the Manenberg ACT convened in March 2000, it did not go smoothly. Long ignored by the government, community members would not allow officials to speak. "They said, ‘We’ve had to be the front line against the gangs. For 20 years where were you?’ They would just scream at us, literally just scream at us," Vawda explained. But as community members came to realize that the ACT provided an opportunity to vent their frustrations — and perhaps influence outcomes in their communities — participation grew. Having a space to air grievances was an important step in building partnerships between officials and the community, but the process took time and patience. In an effort to involve as many community members as possible, ComDev arranged smaller meetings to tackle specific issues, and invited the organizations and individuals who had expressed concerns during the larger sessions. By pooling their resources, groups that sponsored women’s rights, youth programs, and elder care, for example, could focus on their common goals.

Of the eight pilot ACTs, the ones in Manenberg and Hanover Park were the most successful, due to Toms’ ability to lobby the city council. In other ACTs, the chairperson played a less prominent role in building support, and those ACTs’ forums subsequently had much lower attendance rates. According to longtime community activist Faldiela De Vries, "one of the reasons why the ACT worked was that people were taught how to engage with government, and both sides began to know how the other functioned." Local residents cited better communication among the NGOs, and the meetings moved from reactive complaints to proactive solutions.   

The first year of the ACT forums coincided with a period of transformation in Cape Town’s city government. Following its victory in municipal elections in December 2000, the Democratic Alliance Party eliminated ComDev; much of its portfolio was transferred to the new Department of Community Services. (The Democratic Alliance viewed the forums as an initiative of its rival, the African National Congress, and limited political and financial support.)

The national government also passed a new act which obliged local governments to enhance community participation in service delivery. The legislation also mandated community participation in drafting municipal budgets and in determining resource allocation; Toms encouraged existing ACTs to form the basis for community involvement in regards to the new legislation. As the Democratic Alliance reduced support for the ACT program, the teams’ meetings lost their influence. By the end of 2001, only the Manenberg ACT was still meeting on a monthly basis.

Despite the lack of government support, though, community-based initiatives continued to coordinate their efforts. In 2005, for example, a group of local activists joined together to form the Proudly Manenberg campaign to express their frustration with the persistent presence of gangs after a student was killed. The goal was to carve out a space for the community separate from gang life. Just as the ACT coordinated local civic organizations and development projects, Proudly Manenberg gathered key stakeholders in the community to chart a social development plan that centered on local empowerment through education, business, environment, health, sports, arts, housing, and safety.  

The extent to which the ACT forums impacted the confidence, social capital, or well-being of the community was difficult to measure. In a 2004 survey of Manenberg residents, about half said communication from the council to the community had improved since the beginning of the program (and vice versa), and 55% said the ACTs held the council accountable. Although Manenberg saw a steady decline in gang-related violence following the first year of the ACT program, it was difficult for officials to conclude this correlated with ComDev’s activities.

Vawda was confident that the ACTs had provided the space for the community to take on an active role. "I think the intervention that we made had opened the wider process of communities reasserting themselves," he said. ComDev’s initiative in the Cape Flats showed that, by carving out a space for civic participation and using local input to accurately map out the challenges, the community and the government could together begin to identify alternative solutions while not risking confrontation with the gangs.

Richard Bennet is a PhD candidate in the Department of War Studies at King's College London, and wrote this case while working as a Senior Research Specialist at Princeton University's Innovations for Successful Societies program (ISS).

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