By Melanie Sauer
I spent my Friday evening in a police van. It is a Friday night I will never forget, but it is not what you think. As an Australian intern working at The Voice of the Cape radio station, I was offered the chance to attend a metro police operation as a ‘ride along’, with Cape Town City’s Mayco Member for safety and security, Jean-Pierre Smith. It was kind of like Kevin Hart’s awkward ride-along with Ice Cube, except it was not funny and this is the Cape Flats.
The operation, initiated by the Safety & Security Directorate in Cape Town, combined the forces of the Gang and Drug Task Team, the Stabilisation Unit and Law Enforcement Liquor Unit in Ocean View, Hanover Park, Manenberg, Delft and Macassar – areas that are a hotbed of crime in Cape Town. Out of the sixty police stations in Cape Town, ten deal with approximately 50% of the violent crime reported in the city.
I jumped at the opportunity to see a side of Cape Town that many tourists and even Capetonians, never get to see. It wasn’t until I was receiving a police briefing from Sen Supt J Lee however that I realised how dangerous this potentially could be.
South Africa experiences some of the highest levels of police fatalities in the world, with 57 killed in the line of duty in the 2016/2017 financial year. It is a reflection of both the crime rate, and also the commitment of some members of the police force. Sen Supt Lee’s briefing went something along the lines of:
“When I say run, you run. When I say duck, you duck. And when I say stay back, you stay back.”
I’m not sure what I expected. Prior to the operation, I was asked for my top size for my bulletproof vest, and this did unsettle me slightly, but I took comfort in the fact that Smith was attending. Surely he wouldn’t throw himself in the middle of the firing line. Wrong.
Smith is a natural and blended right in with the other officers. I, did not. It’s not just that I lack basic self-defence knowledge, but I am notoriously uncoordinated and accident prone.
I had to be reminded several times by Sen Supt Lee to:
1. Not to stand out in the open. I needed to be close to some sort of shield/cover (like a van door)
2. Not to loiter in doorways, to avoid bullets ricocheting off the sides
3. Never to stand more than 10cm behind him
I was congratulated when I finally began following instructions. So that’s settled – I will not be quitting my day job.
A new order
The operation started off quite tame. Thankfully.
First up, was a house in Oceanview. The team conducted a search for suspicion of firearms, with the aim of arresting a gang member who is responsible for a lot of gang-related crime and violence in the community. This was my first insight into the sheer power that gang members have to influence community members’ behaviour and actions. No one in the neighborhood wanted to speak about the person of interest, or his whereabouts.
The effect is not always negative however. In one community, for example, this concept of ‘gang control’ was leveraged to respond to a bonfire on the side of the road. After the fire was put out, an amicable conversation was had between the police and a ‘gang member’ to raise concerns of the activity. The benefit of this, is that these men were far more likely to listen to ‘gang members’ rather than law enforcement, as in certain communities, they are not only respected, but praised as heroes.
The flip side is that communities become protective and sometimes close ranks, at all costs. A car was pulled over in one area, which led to a large crowd of observers. A few people were yelling, trying to cause a scene. At this point, I was moved close to one of the van’s open doors, as this particular community was known for “throwing stones and rocks at the police”.
Speaking to people in these communities, I am sure they would sell you the positives. Some may feel as if they are protected and looked after by high flyers and gang leaders, and have lost faith in the police and government. However the reality is that they are succumbing to a new order that is dictated by individuals who have a serious disregard for the law, but more importantly, any morals and ethics. This can only end badly for these communities.
South African Minister of Police, Fikale Mbalula agrees.
“These (gang members) have projected them as too powerful. Some community members are in the pockets of these gangsters. They dish out patronage and do all sorts of things as if they are a government”
Mbalula admits that the intimidation exercised and power exerted by these gang groupings can make it difficult for communities to assist the police, however stresses it is necessary for the State to be able to stamp their authority and rid Cape Town of these “acts of terror”.
Although gang violence accounts for only 11.4% of violent crime in Cape Town, which is less than what many would expect, this power and influence, shows the importance of the Gang and Drug Task team operations. Western Cape Minister for Community and Safety, Dan Plato, agrees.
“One of the biggest concerns in the Western Cape is how gangsters and drug lords destroy the safety of public spaces,” says Plato.
Other threats to safe public spaces identified by Plato, include alcohol abuse, and physical environments which have empty buildings, poor street lighting and/or unsafe pathways. It is likely however that gang-related violence will decrease, when City of Cape Town implements further measures to control gang-related violence, including the launch of ten Neighbourhood Safety Teams, which will be placed in the ten most crime affected police precincts.
The gateway to crime
As we moved to another area of Ocean View – Ivy Court, the team upped the anti. Less than a minute after entering the suburb, the van door was flung open. Everyone (except for me) bolted out in different directions, and began searching three people. To me they had appeared out of nowhere. The team however had spotted them as soon as they had pulled into the street. Yet another reason to stick to my day job.
This theme continued throughout the operation. I was often 5-10 seconds behind what was going on.
A 14 year old boy was found to be in possession of drugs, and a further search of his residence revealed more drugs. We had hit the jackpot.
Two more searches of apartments nearby were conducted, both showing signs of heavy drug use and probable trafficking. One was home to a two-three year old baby*. I couldn’t help but think how this poor child has been destined from birth for a life fraught with drugs and crime.
Minutes later, a 12-year old boy roaming the streets alone was found to have a knife on him. Although he didn’t reveal much when questioned, it was suspected that he had been sent to extract drugs from one of the apartments before the police could find them.
By the end of the operation, I had become used to the profile of those found in possession of drugs and/or weapons (knives and firearms) – young men aged between 12-20, some as young as thirteen already branded with gang tattoos.
It’s no wonder that these communities experience such a heavy burden of crime in Cape Town. They are breeding grounds for criminals. While children in more affluent communities’ biggest priorities or concerns may be their weekly soccer game or dance recital, the majority of young boys in these crime-ridden areas are beginning their climb up one of the most brutal and unforgiving career ladders around. Because that is what it essentially is to them – a career path that only a minority are destined to ‘succeed’ at. Despite this, they seem to fear nothing, probably because they can’t see any other viable options and believe that the positives outweigh the negatives.
It confirms research that suggests the importance of early childhood education and social development programs in deterring crime.
“I am not a proponent of poverty equals crime. It’s not there statistically. Research shows that much of how a child will turn out is determined in the first 1000 days,” says Smith.
The director of the Cape Town Safety and Violence Initiative at the University of Cape Town, Guy Lamb, agrees.
“In South Africa we’ve invested so much in the police, where actually we should be investing in social workers and other systems that support, because those (broken homes) are the generators of perpetrators of crime,” says Lamb.
“The problem is that many government departments do not see crime and safety as part of their portfolio.”
The Western Cape Department of Community Safety recognises the need for a cross-departmental approach. The 2015/16 Policing Needs & Priorities (PNPs) report, which provides a series of findings and recommendations for creating a safer community, identifies the role of other government departments, such as the Western Cape Education Department and Department of Social Development in addressing truancy and substance abuse, respectively. Both of which have been linked to perpetrators engaging in crime.
The meltdown of SAPS and the criminal justice system
We were on the way home at 3am, when several shots were detected on the ShotSpotter, a technology developed by SST, Inc. that was deployed in Cape Town in July 2016 to detect gunfire in an area covering Hanover Park and Manenberg. The technology enables police to respond to gun activity immediately through SMS notifications received, which show the exact location of the detected gunfire.
In this case, it may not have even been necessary. We could hear the gunshots from the petrol station we were parked at. It was thrilling, screeching down the road, chasing after these shots, but not something I would want to be doing every day. As the rest of the team jumped out, I was instructed to stay in the van. I did not need to be told. You could not have paid me to run out in the open where gunshots had just been fired.
Unfortunately, the firearms responsible for the gunfire were not found. We did however come across a woman lying next to the road, bleeding profusely from two head wounds. The background of the incident was unknown however we were informed by the two women with her, that they had been waiting an hour for the ambulance. This was an area they could not enter without police escort, due to safety protocol.
Considering the local SAPS station was less than ten minutes away, this seemed like a ridiculous response time. We were just about to go get the ambulance ourselves, when they arrived. One of the women was furious, yelling at the SAPS police officers who were accompanying the ambulance. And rightfully so.
This is just a small insight into the alleged inefficiencies of the police and other institutional issues identified in the Khayelitsha Commission of Inquiry, which according to Smith, SAPS have chosen to ignore.
“Part of our high crime rate is the failure and collapse of the criminal justice system. It is not the severity of punishment, but the certainty of punishment that determines behaviour. People will game even the death penalty.” says Smith.
The conviction rate for all reported cases of violent crime in South Africa, is about 3%**.
The 2015/16 PNPs report, released by the Western Cape Department of Community Safety, found that only 61% of respondents have confidence in the police in their area. This can be considered a good result, when compared to other findings. majority of people have little or no confidence in the Department of Correctional Services (55%), National Prosecuting Authority (54%) and the Justice system (65%).
Furthermore, 35% of respondents think the police in their area are corrupt, while 57% of respondents felt the police do not respond to crime scenes on time.
“There are many deep institutional problems,” says Smith.
This includes “detectives and the overall command and control failure, the death of crime intelligence as an entity, the dysfunction within the Independent Police Investigations Directorate(IPID), and the low level of recommendations that are adhered to by the police”, and “the entire meltdown of SAPS”, which has led to “increasingly less institutional knowledge”.
Considering this low conviction rate, it is easy to see how, among other social factors, these young men roam the streets with illegal firearms and/or drugs so fearlessly. In the meantime, Smith is pushing to make the SAPS 6 Report statistics and findings publicly accessible, to encourage accountability. This report includes details of all crime reported and at what stage of the investigation they are at.
A changed perspective
In the past eight months of traveling through South and Central America, and Africa, this was by the far the most insightful, exciting, slightly stressful and nerve-wracking experiences I have had. And I would hands down do it all again.
It broke down a lot of perceptions I had towards crime and victims of crime. I got to witness the pure dedication and commitment of police officers that throw themselves in the line of danger every day. And even found Smith’s fan club in Manenberg – as we drove away from a group of men who had managed to fit 15 of them in a hatchback (it was stationary), they chanted “We love you JP! We love you JP!” A very unexpected response.
More than anything, it made me realize the value of building supportive communities from the ground up, and giving young children the tools and knowledge to see the opportunities that are available to them. VOC
*The matter was reported to the Dept. Of Social Development for potential breaches of the Children’s Act which required formal legal action to protect the child.
**This figure includes cases that have not gone to trial. National government report only on cases that go to trial.