South Africa’s strict pandemic response could give criminal gangs an unexpected boost

South African Defense Forces and police check a minibus driver who violated the lockdown in Johannesburg, on March 27. (Jerome Delay)
South African Defense Forces and police check a minibus driver who violated the lockdown in Johannesburg, on March 27. (Jerome Delay)

The World Health Organization last month praised South Africa’s decisive coronavirus action, combining mass screening with one of the world’s strictest lockdowns. Media reports also noted a side benefit — an apparent drop in homicides and “miracle” gang truces.

But that’s not the full story. My research with gangs in Cape Town suggests these reports are misleading. Media reports in fact may be masking how harsh policing and the economic strain of lockdown are making gangs stronger.

The problem of militarized policing

South Africa’s army has been deployed to help enforce curfews and lockdown rules, but this has raised concerns over the “militarization” of policing. Militarization describes a process in which civilian police increasingly adopt the combative culture of militaries and favor aggressive tactics for law enforcement, as well as the increasing use of soldiers in policing roles. This was the typical form of policing in South Africa during Apartheid.

My research in communities that are no strangers to military deployments adds to a body of research showing that militarized interventions at best only temporarily suppress violence. At worst, military interventions increase violence. If soldiers or militarized police carry out abuses against civilians, their presence can deepen local grievances and boost the sense of marginalization from which gangs draw strength.

Lockdown in South Africa has followed this pattern. From the outset, the media reported violent confrontations between police and residents of low-income townships. Videos of harsh punishments by soldiers and police circulated widely on social media, leading the United Nations to express concern over the enforcement of social distancing with rubber bullets, tear gas and whips. In this way, South Africa’s lockdown may have deepened the sense of alienation and neglect that fuels gang recruitment and support in many communities.

No, there was no “miracle” pandemic peace

Despite policing abuses, reporting on the lockdown has pointed to reduced violence in Cape Town’s streets due to the curtailing of gang turf wars. International media highlighted a “miracle” truce between rival gangs in the Manenberg neighborhood, mirroring similar stories of cease-fires around the world. But scratch below the surface and a familiar reality emerges.

Since 2017, as part of my research for a comparative project on gang-related violence, I’ve conducted in-depth interviews and maintained contact with a broad cross-section of gang members across Cape Town. During the pandemic I checked in with these sources and with community leaders to track developments, combining remote interviews and WhatsApp exchanges with on-the-ground corroboration by researchers at The Safety Lab.

My findings show that Cape Town’s gangs have acted strategically during the lockdown to protect and consolidate their operations. Ceasefires were temporary, and in many cases may be little more than public relations exercises.

One of these contacts — “Marcus,” a senior shot-caller in the Americans, Cape Town’s largest gang — explained that the widely reported truce was a misnomer. The gangs who came together to distribute aid were already at peace and, though welcome, the aid effort involved older, nonactive members. Local news reports, in fact, later confirmed that the fragile peace was broken by a running battle in the streets. Bloody feuds continue in Cape Town, and some residents report the sound of gunfire is ever present.

Why do gangs thrive under lockdown?

Amid the pandemic, criminal groups are finding ways to continue their illicit activities and strengthen their position in communities — including through apparent acts of altruism. One investigation found that gangs use food parcels to smuggle drugs and guns. The drug trade has flourished rather than abated in many areas, and gangs also profit from selling black-market alcohol and tobacco at inflated prices thanks to the lockdown ban.

My research suggests that the booming black-market trade and school closures make it easier for gangs to recruit young teenagers. According to “Liam,” one ex-gangster: “The gangs are getting stronger because the kids can’t go to school. They are hanging around on the street corners, bored, and so they are becoming involved in the illegal cigarette trade controlled by gangs.”

“Francis,” a community leader in Manenberg, described his frustration that well-intended church-sponsored aid had been distributed through gangs, bypassing the existing efforts of residents. Providing aid helps gangs build support, or at least tolerance, within their neighborhoods.

This is not a new strategy. Just as insurgencies often provide “rebel governance,” other research shows that criminal gangs leverage provision of security and public services to secure local compliance. Gangs have long provided Cape Town communities with food and money for electricity, aiming to discourage residents from cooperating with the police.

By supplying provisions during lockdown, gangs are again capitalizing on local desperation and frustration at a perceived lack of government support. People’s frustration is amplified when police and soldiers publicly punish and humiliate residents for contravening lockdown rules. It’s the gangs who benefit from this frustration.

What happens after the lockdown?

In May, South Africa began a phased easing of the lockdown, hoping to alleviate some of its economic strain. For many marginalized communities in the country, the eventual return to business as usual will mean a return to everyday insecurity and inequality. Since gangs may ultimately emerge from the pandemic even stronger, there’s reason to believe that they may step up their turf wars, resulting in greater levels of violence.

In the months to come, the future of public security policy is likely to remain a pressing concern in South Africa. Longer-term alternative approaches will likely focus on public health efforts, policing by consensus and broader community engagement. These approaches may offer solutions that better align with President Cyril Ramaphosa’s call for compassion in implementing the lockdown.

Kieran Mitton is a senior lecturer in the Department of War Studies at King’s College London and co-founder of the Urban Violence Research Network. His current research draws on extended fieldwork with gangs in Cape Town, Rio de Janeiro and Freetown. Follow him @kieranmitton.

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