What are the links between gender-based violence and gang violence in Cape Town, South Africa? Susan Forde explores the problems with the government’s deployment of the military to tackle murder rates comparable to war-zones in Cape Town’s townships.
On 6 July 2019, six women aged between 18 and 26 were murdered in their home in a single shooting in Philippi East, Cape Town, South Africa. The following day five men between the ages of 18 and 19 were shot and killed in two different incidents. The motive of the killings has not been confirmed, but reports surrounding the killings describe them as ‘execution style murders’. The high frequency of such violence in townships equates to murder rates in war zones.
In mid-July 2019, in a bid to tackle proliferating levels of violence, the deployment of the South African military in the Cape Flats area of Cape Town was announced by President Cyril Ramaphosa to be in effect until October that year.
While gang related murders receive greater visibility, South African Police (SAPS) statistics from 2017/18 demonstrate murders attributed to ‘arguments’, ‘domestic violence’ and ‘relation/ revenge’ make up ‘23% of the murders’, while 22% of murders were related to gang activities. Gender-based violence (GBV) and sexual violence occurs at a significantly high rate across South Africa and is not limited to gang related crimes or townships. The recent murders of Uyinene Mrwetyana, Janika Mallo, Lynette Volschenk, Leighandre Jegels, Jesse Hess and Meghan Cremer, during Women’s Month in South Africa, led to the trending of #AmINext and protests calling for a state of emergency to be declared.
Protesters in early September 2019 gathered in central Cape Town outside the World Economic Forum for Africa and at the South African Parliament, where they were met with police violence through use of water cannons and tear gas. The police used water dyed blue, which mirrors the use of water cannons with purple dye against anti-apartheid protesters in 1989. In light of these events, this post will discuss the ineffectiveness of military deployment to tackle long-standing structural violence and will demonstrate the urgency of addressing GBV across the country.
During the apartheid era, the South African government expanded the colonial displacement of Black and Coloured* South Africans. The government enshrined racist divisions in legislation which policed everyday life, including movement, use of space and interpersonal relationships. The 1992 transition to democracy may have formally ended the divisions of apartheid, but transitional justice mechanisms fell far short of providing survivors ‘the means to deal with material and psychological consequences of apartheid violence’. This left many in a similar or worsening situation in the post-apartheid era. Cape Town, while popular with tourists, is one of the most divided cities in South Africa. The residential areas of the city largely replicate the Apartheid divisions.
‘War zone’ levels of violence
The Cape Flats are a low-socioeconomic area engineered by the political and economic violence of colonialism and Apartheid. The townships selected for military deployment suffer extensive violence. For example, with regards to the murder rate, Philippi East has an estimated rate of 323.4 per 100,000 people. Comparatively, in 2017 in the Syrian conflict there was a reported 39,000 deaths, which equates to 212 per 100,000 people.
Notable criticisms have been made regarding the deployment of the military, and the wider response to the involvement of the military is marked by uncertainty, though it is welcomed by some. Fundamentally, the popularity of gang culture illustrates ideas around masculinity alongside intersecting issues concerning identity and security, in spaces where the government has failed communities with respect to access to basic rights.
Ongoing divisions have created an environment in which gang violence thrives. In combination, the under-resourced police force and reported rising levels of corruption in the South African Police Service has ebbed away at trust in the rule of law and the ability for the SAPS to tackle the ongoing and worsening violence. Critically, the deployment of the military has not led to a decrease in the murder rate and fails to address social and structural issues which create the conditions for such violence to thrive. With the questionable capabilities of the South African Police Service, alongside mass inequality, gang membership serves as a form of security which reinforces violent conceptualisations of masculinity. The impact of the widespread gang violence on communities is considerable, with children and youth vulnerable to gang recruitment and being caught in the crossfire, leading to death, physical injury and psychological trauma. Since the military deployment, there has been an increase in the number of murders, but a decrease in murders on pay-day weekend was noted with 46 recorded in the last weekend of July 2019.
Gender-based and sexual violence
Sexual and gender-based violence are a product of violent conceptions of masculinity formed through the countries’ violent past, which often intersects with race in different ways. While gender-based violence is an issue across South Africa, reporting and judicial support and visibility of these crimes in ‘black townships get far less attention in the media [and are] often portrayed as normal and unsensational’. The lack of an appropriate provision of expertise and resources demonstrates a lack of prioritisation of the high rate of gender-based violence as a state of emergency. The murders of Uyinene Mrwetyana, Janika Mallo, Lynette Volschenk, Leighandre Jegels, Jesse Hess and Meghan Cremer, among others, have drawn attention to the issue of gender-based violence. Yet it is estimated that thirty women were murdered in South Africa by their partners in August 2019 alone, drawing greater attention to understanding the spaces in which notable violence occurs as one which the deployment of the army would do little to reach.
Discussions around the prevalence of gang violence highlight the maintenance of structural violence as a key variable that impacts on the capabilities of youth living in low-socioeconomic spaces. Fundamentally, the threat of gender-based violence and gangsterism are interlinked through conceptualisations of masculinity formed, in part, from a violent past and the inequality that has been maintained through the oppressive structures of Apartheid. Notably, the deployment does not allow for the development of ‘peaceful conflict resolution skills’ or through social service and structural provisions, and it is clear that in the long-term a solution that addresses structural problems with physical responses will only be partly or temporarily successful. While the response to protesters exemplifies the violence of the state, tangible areas such as support for victims, improving reporting mechanisms, police training and judicial support are not receiving adequate funding.
*The term ‘Coloured’ was the official label in South Africa for persons of mixed heritage, and it is used in this work in acknowledgement of how the government categorisations are continued and have a direct impact on the experience of persons categorised under such labels.
Photo: Khayelitsha, Cape Town. Credit: USAID | Southern Africa.