Cape Town, South Africa – On Thursday afternoon, residents of gang-hit Cape Town neighbourhoods cheered and applauded from the pavement and leant out of the windows of their homes to record videos on their mobile phones as armoured military vehicles drove by in a long convoy.
Last week, Police Minister Bheki Cele announced that the South African National Defence Force (SANDF), as the country’s military is known, would be deployed to 10 of the port city’s murder hotspots for a period of around three months.
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He added that the deployment was an “extraordinary” measure to ensure public safety amid spiralling violent crime.
Soldiers began arriving from across the country on Monday. Many have previously served in peacekeeping missions in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) and South Sudan.
After a hold-up due to paperwork issues and a few days of what the SANDF call “mission-ready training”, soldiers armed with assault rifles on Thursday began their operation by helping to man roadblocks and cordon off streets while police carried out raids, searches and arrests.
“What took you so long?” shouted some of the onlookers in Afrikaans.
According to recent statistics based on local mortuary records, there have been 900 murders across the Cape Flats, a sand-swept area of sprawling and largely under-served townships on Cape Town’s periphery, since the beginning of this year.
Albert Fritz, a Western Cape provincial official tasked with ensuring community safety, said last week that 1,875 people had been murdered across the entire province in the past six months.
“This means that many of our most vulnerable residents are living in a war zone.”
The violence culminated in a spate of 13 murders in fewer than 48 hours in a single neighbourhood earlier in July, while even after the announcement of the military’s imminent deployment last week, there were a further 43 murders across the city last weekend.
Against this backdrop, the army’s deployment has been welcomed by many of the Cape Flats’s community policing forums and neighbourhood watch groups, as well as the government of Western Cape Province.
“The deployment of the SANDF is a massive relief for the people of our province who can now look forward to being safe in their own communities and homes,” Fritz told the media after Cele’s announcement.
Gertrude du Toit, a 52-year-old resident of Delft, one of the neighbourhoods where the military is being deployed, told Al Jazeera that “it will be a pleasure to have the army come in and clean the gangsters off the street.”
Du Toit’s 21-year-old son was himself a gang member and was shot and killed by a rival gang in October last year.
But a number of security experts have questioned the military deployment.
“Putting the defence force into these areas is not going to solve anything in the long term,” John Stupart, director at African Defence Review, said.
“It speaks to the desperation of the people in charge to be seen to be doing something, even if it’s not really going to achieve the desired results.”
Stupart pointed out that there is a landmark precedent to support his claims.
The army has previously been deployed to certain areas of the Cape Flats, as recently as 2015 and 2017.
The military was also routinely called on during apartheid to suppress riots and protests in townships across South Africa, often carrying out grave human-rights abuses in the process.
“You now have soldiers who are trained to find targets and shoot them going into unfamiliar environments that represent very much the same demographics as they did during apartheid. And it’s wrong for all the same reasons that it was then,” Stupart said.
‘Lack of understanding’
For Simone Haysom, an author and senior analyst at the Global Initiative Against Transnational Organized Crime (GI TOC), the military deployment speaks to a “lack of understanding and imagination” on the part of the state.
Haysom added that this is in large part a result of the severe corrosion of South Africa’s criminal intelligence capabilities during the nine-year tenure of former President Jacob Zuma, who stepped down in February 2018 in the face of growing pressure from his ruling African National Congress party (ANC) and civil-society protests.
“That has had a serious impact on the state’s ability to understand what’s happening in these spaces,” she told Al Jazeera.
“We default again and again to heavy-handed policing, heavy-handed enforcement, short-term operations. This won’t fundamentally change the power of gangs and the nature of the criminal economy and the profits that it generates, and it won’t change the social conditions.”
Experts say widespread unemployment, a lack of services including health and recreational facilities, and rampant drug abuse are among the drivers of gangsterism and associated violent crime across the Cape Flats, an area that continues to live with the legacy of apartheid spatial planning.
The violence has been exacerbated by an under-resourced police force, with poor black people and “coloured” (a local term for people of mixed racial heritage) communities bearing the brunt of an estimated nationwide deficit of 62,000 police officers.
In 2018, South African news site GroundUp reported that the township of Nyanga, which has the undesirable title of South Africa’s murder capital and is also on the list of areas where the army is being deployed, had approximately 161 police officers for every 100,000 residents, while the predominantly-white suburb of Rondebosch had 556, despite not registering a single murder in the 12-month period covered by the latest crime statistics.
Erosion of trust
Many police stations in the Cape Flats are also beset by corruption. According to a recent article by Haysom and GI TOC colleague Mark Shaw, at least 2,000 handguns were sold to gangs by corrupt police officers between 2010 and 2016.
As well as heightening the violence, the corruption has led to considerable erosion of trust towards the police among Cape Flats residents, which further hinders attempts to combat the issue.
In contrast, Haysom says many of the gangs are deeply “socially embedded” within their communities and will therefore always outlast any temporary military deployment.
Back in Delft, Verona Walters, 46, was dismissive of the arrival of the army in her neighbourhood.
“I don’t think it’ll help,” she said matter-of-factly, sitting on a sofa on the meticulously neat covered patio of her small brick home, surrounded by ornamental lampshades and pot plants.
Walters told Al Jazeera that almost every weekend there were reports that “at least two or three people” had been shot dead in her area.
“You can’t go out at night. You hear gunshots all the time. You can’t sleep because you’re too scared something might happen,” she said.
“But the police do nothing. They are failing us on a daily basis.”
Having lived in Delft for more than 20 years, Walters knows many of the gang members who have terrorised her community well.
“Most of them are still young,” she said, “and for most of us parents it’s very sad because you saw them grow up together, and now they’re killing each other.”
Additional reporting by Shaun Swingler