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Organized crime in South Africa

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As South Africa enters its 22nd year of democracy, ordinary South Africans feel the gains made in the country’s transition are being pushed back by the alarming increase in crime and violence. Gang violence, rooted in organized crime, continues unabated, and almost on a daily basis claims the lives of innocent civilians. But it was the recent murder of a smash and grab assailant on Jakes Gerwel Drive that sparked a debate about the sophisticated nature of criminal activity within the Cape Flats. Many community members have subsequently beseeched government to investigate and prosecute organized crime leaders.

Analyst for the Nelson Mandela Foundation, Khalil Goga, explained that organized crime is a “tricky” concept, since its definition is relative to each country.

Historically within South Africa, American definitions of organized crime were used.

The Prevention of Organized Crime Act (POCA) defines organized crime in a much more “flexible” manner since commercial crimes are prosecuted under the scope of organized crime.

“The commercial and organized crime should be defined as sustained activity by a group of three or more people who engage continuously in criminal activity,” he said.

Evidence of organized crime dates back to early mining communities in the 1800’s where gangs of robbers were considered organized criminals since they continuously committed crimes in large groups.

More recent definitions of organized crime dates back to the late 1980’s and 1990’s where criminal activity became more sophisticated.

An activity is considered organized crime when individuals that commit smash and grab crimes, for instance, with the specific intent of stealing cell phones and electronics for the purpose of reselling are able to sustain this activity.

How has organized crime advanced?

In the history of South African organized crime and established gangs were in existence and were involved in criminal activity but lacked the international dimension.

A growth in the drug trade in the 1980’s occurred as a result of the increase of mandrax usage and in the 1990’s in which a “crack” epidemic occurred. The drug trade was also greatly impacted by the export of South African grown cannabis.

The South African context of organized crime was greatly impacted by an increase in abalone poachers and shark finning that were committed by transnational groups.

The gangs have therefore over the years morphed into well-financed and sophisticated organizations.

“The money, therefore, became huge and the people became more powerful,” notes Goga.

Drugs found within the Cape Flats, where “tik” is the primary drug, are sources from numerous places. Synthetic drugs, he notes, are laced with chemicals that are imported from china and India and subsequently produced in South African drug labs. Alternatively, he notes, drugs may be produced in certain African countries after which it will be brought into South Africa.

Heroin, Goga explains is imported, primarily from Pakistan and Afghanistan, whilst cocaine is imported from South America.

Cannabis found within the Cape Flats is primarily grown within South Africa, in Kwazulu-Natal, and former Transkei region, or imported from Lesotho and Swaziland.

The roots of organized crime

The Institute of Security Studies (ISS) recently drafted a report that focused on violent offenders, and showed evidence of a trend of “broken homes.”

A life of crime within the context of South Africa may also be spurred on by forced removals that occurred under the apartheid government.

“They pushed people into areas and didn’t give them anything else, there was no recreation, there were no jobs,” Goga explained.

The failure of textile industry added to the level of frustration as this left many South Africans unemployed.

The lack of regulatory laws for the consumption of alcohol further impacted addiction within the Cape Flats. Alcohol addiction subsequently gave rise to the consumption of mandrax, which once it was made illegal, created a platform for organized crime to thrive.

Interestingly, Goga explained, the design of the City sustains organized crime, since the location of the Cape Flats, which is located far from the City centre, provides a climate for gang influence.

It is, therefore, evident that organized crime found in places like Gansbaai would reflect a different persona with the prevalence of abalone poachers, whilst organized crime within Durban would be modeled around the port.

In Johannesburg, Goga explained, the city centre is witnessing a decrease in concentrated business development with the CBD whilst organized crime is increasing.

Poverty and crime

Post-doctoral fellow at the Centre of Criminology at the University of Cape Town, Andrew Faull, explained that the argument that asserts that individuals join gangs as a means to “survive” does not hold strong since “individuals do not kill because they are poor.”

Violence, therefore, correlates with inequality rather than poverty. Individuals residing on the Cape Flats may witness the affluent life styles of individuals who reside on the mountain, which may result in a damaged sense of identity and erodes a sense of self-worth.

Faull explained that individuals who are involved in organized crime do not spend in a rational way. If it meant choosing a life of crime for the purposes of survival, then individuals who participate in organized crime would spend all their “gains paying their children’s school fees and purchasing healthy food.”

Instead, Faull asserted, criminals who participate in organized crime, predominantly spend their gains on superficial items such as fancy clothes and modifying their cars.

“This is about status and identity, which holds up a particular ideal of success which you can’t be part of, so this is a way of securing a sense of self-worth and identity.”

Corrupt police system

With regard to reports of police assisting criminals, Faull explains that social ties are often strong within communities from which police, organized crime leaders and gang members are drawn.

It is, therefore, apparent that police officers who are raised alongside a particular gang member or leader may feel compelled to assist the gang member to abscond from the law.

“In the same way that parents do not turn on their children if they know that their children are involved in gang activity.”

Policing in general is, therefore, much more “murky and grey” in nature and creates an environment in which police offices are unable to dissociate from their counterparts in communities.

Police officers who do discover corruption within the police force, Faull notes, may ‘turn a blind eye’ in fear of losing their employment.

He, however, explains that there have been high profile police officials, such as Jackie Selebi, who have been taken to task for their role in corruption.

“Within the South African context, the South African police salaries place the police in the top 15 per cent of the wealthiest South Africans.”

Faull, therefore, asserts that it is a “myth” to assume that police officers are under paid.

“You may be earning R15 000 a month as a police constable but working in a suburb where everybody is earning R60 000 a month and driving fancy cars and living in big houses. That may make you feel as though your R15 000 is not a lot and may, therefore, make you want to make some extra money by cooperating with criminals.”

“Unless you are unable to feed yourself”, police salaries, therefore, do not have a direct impact corruption within the police force, he added.

Faull, however, notes that it is more likely that police offices will seek out second jobs than participate in criminal activity.

With regard to the opinion that police officers are paid inadequate salaries in relation to the imminent dangers that they face, he explained that more police officers are murdered off duty than on duty, predominately in car accidents.

The myth that police officers are underpaid, therefore, needs to be interrogated.

“If one were paid more to work in a dangerous area, then I think police would be willing to do it.”

With regard to the demographic profile of the SAPS, Faull explains, that it is “fairly” representative of the demographics of the country. White individuals are, however, “slightly” over represented – 70+ per cent black, 11 per cent coloured, 12 per cent white, and the remainder Indian.

Black individuals, the large majority of underprivileged, apply for jobs within the SAPS as it provides job security and a salary that individuals feel may not be attained without a qualification.

“Getting a job in the SAPS is like winning the lottery because you only need a matric certificate.”

The role of the police in combatting organized crime

Faull explained that the police are mandated to keep South Africans safe and prevent crime.

The constitutional mandate has been criticized by some scholars since it sets police up for failure, as police are limited in what they can actually do to prevent crime.

“Police have to pick up the pieces when bigger problems in society have led to disorder and criminality,” Faull noted.

It appears that the South African Police Service (SAPS) has set itself an almost impossible mandate, since police are only allowed to intervene in certain crimes – “so the idea that police can ‘prevent crime’ is unfair.”

In addition, the Cape Flats area has serious social challenges that have contributed to criminal activity within the community, such as; unemployment, drug use, and the lack of schools that provide supportive environments for young kids.

SAPS have placed many resources within the Cape Flats areas. The resources are, however, not proportionate to the population.

“So they do appear well-resourced, but they are not well-resourced if one looks at the population.”

He further notes that the murders that occur within the Western Cape occur predominantly in areas that were not previously restricted to people of colour.

The SAPS should, therefore, do more to combat crime in South Africa by implementing evidence based practices, instead of “driving around in circles.”

Faull further noted that the police services need to implement mechanism directed toward controlling police use of force, as well as improve the discriminatory use of force against non-white South Africans.

Combatting organized crime

Within South Africa, Goga explained, organized crime is tiered – level one to five. The unsophisticated organizations that are mandated to protect against organized crime groups includes the petrol groups, such as ADD. This level of crime prevention seeks to deter drug dealers found selling drugs.

“Obviously, with organized crime it goes up, that drug dealer needs to get his drugs from someone and, therefore, becomes more sophisticated.”

In the Western Cape, SAPS is directly involved in battling crime. This is evident in the establishment of Operation Combat, previously headed by major general Jeremy Veary but now under the leadership of Brigadier Goolam.

In addition, the City of Cape Town through its crime prevention mandate has introduced stabilization forces in the Western Cape.

Goga explained that the more sophisticated crime prevention mechanisms are found within the operations led by the Hawks, who combat high level cross-provincial drug trafficking.

“South Africa struggled quite a bit with the issue of drugs in terms of implementation problems and politicization of the SAPS, Hawks, and the Scorpions.”

He, therefore, notes that anti-corruption bodies within South Africa have made sufficient strides in combating corruption within the various safety and security mechanisms.

The SAPS, Goga explained, can only do “so much,” since the social conditions within areas in which they operate are as a result of deeper socio-economic problems.

Policing structures have, therefore, failed on numerous platforms in terms of investigation, evidence gathering, where people neglect to report crimes, and due to a lack of resource capacity.

VOC (Thakira Desai)


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