Flats and shacks on the outskirts of Cape Town. Photo: Getty
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Fighting Cape Town’s notorious gangs

Martin Plaut meets the man taking on the gangs that are said to be responsible for 80 per cent of Cape Town’s crime.

I heard him long before I saw him. Alderman J P Smith strode towards his office, his mobile phone pressed to his head; spitting out his words as if they were bullets. I sat at his office table quietly finishing off the coffee his secretary had kindly brought me. I peered round as I waited for the conversation to end. A series of caps – the trophies of his visits the United States: New York Police Department, FBI – hung from a stand. A label stuck on his computer screen reads: “my job is secure, nobody wants it”.

That may be right. Jean-Pierre (or “JP” as he prefers to be know) has one of the most dangerous jobs in the city. As chairperson of the City of Cape Town’s Safety and Security Portfolio Committee it is his responsibility to take on the gangs that have devastated the lives of the coloured community. In the townships that spread beyond the elegant white suburbs the gangsters rule supreme. They control the drugs and other rackets. In 2010 a BBC programme suggested the city had around 150 gangs, with some 100,000 members.

Between them they were said to be responsible for 80 per cent of the city’s crime.

Accompanying Helen Zille, the leader of the Democratic Alliance, during her recent election campaign in Mitchell’s Plain, there was no doubting the damage they have inflicted. “We will fight drugs, kick out the gangsters!” she shouted from her campaign bus. It was a popular message. Now JP must deliver on the promise.

He had been at Mrs Zille’s side as she spoke to her party representatives from the township. JP had filled in the details, explaining how they had to organise themselves to be the eyes and ears of their communities. “We will give radio-phones, linked to the city’s security network,” he had told them.

It is not the first time JP has used these tactics. He first became a city councillor in Sea Point and Green Point – an area of dense flats facing the Atlantic Ocean, with Robben Island in the distance. Once highly sought after, by the early 2000s the area had gone to seed. Drugs were rife and so was prostitution. “Do you know what he did?” a friend asked me when I told them I had met JP. “He organised groups with long-range lens cameras. They snapped the girls getting into the punters’ cars. Then he sent them to the men’s wives. Result? Meltdown on the home front!”

Within weeks the prostitutes were fading away. The area is now highly desirable once more. Quite how JP got the home addresses from the car number plates is something of a mystery. His reputation for achieving results comes with another for cutting corners.

JP, despite having an English surname, is an Afrikaner. Well over six feet tall, with a ramrod posture and ice-cold blue eyes, JP looks every inch a former special-forces operative. He went to the D F Malan High School in Kuils River, named after the Prime Minister who had introduced apartheid. Yet JP has a political history that is stranger than fiction.

“I used to work in a store when I was a kid,” he told me. “A guy gave me a copy of the Communist Manifesto. It was an awakening.” Soon JP was distributing literature at the school for the End Conscription Campaign, trying to persuade Afrikaans boys not to join the army. Within a week he was expelled and spent the next three months at home.

JP joined the most radical black movement he could find – the Pan Africanist Congress. After furious rows at home he left for the black township of Kayamandi, on the edge of the Stellenbosch. The name means “nice home” in Xhosa, but it was anything but. He worked in a butchery, a tavern and then a cinema. On the wall was the PAC slogan: “One settler, one bullet,” and in the 1980s JP stood out like a sore thumb. Finally his PAC friends warned him to leave, or he’d end up dead.

The Democratic Alliance needed an organiser in Mitchells Plain so he went to live there. There were endless fights. “I was living out of a car and got stabbed putting up posters. Just above my arse.” He offers to show me, but I demure, looking instead at the scars on his fists. “It was all part of the fun,” he said. And there were plenty of girls: “1988 was the last time I dated a white chick.”

Despite the banter and bravado JP is deadly serious. He gives an hour-long presentation about the scale of the challenge. The ANC wants the Western Cape to fail, he says. That is why 60 per cent of all police vacancies are in this province. But the real challenge, he insists, is not that there are too few police. “It’s not numbers, numbers, numbers, its quality!” he says, glaring at me.  

Since taking over the portfolio JP has kicked out the deadwood and brought back old hands. “I don’t care if they are black or white, if they are useless they are out!” This, together with new equipment, training from the Americans and British, innovative technology and a careful collection of evidence is beginning to show results. But it is an uphill battle. The prosecution system is close to collapse and cases fall apart in the courts. By deploying CCTV and paying for tip-offs from a network of local committees JP believes he can make a difference. There is no doubting his sincerity, but the gangs have burrowed deep into these impoverished, drug ridden communities. Getting them out will be no mean feat.  

Martin Plaut is a fellow at the Institute of Commonwealth Studies, University of London. He is the author of Understanding Eritrea and, with Paul Holden, the author of Who Rules South Africa?

Photo: Getty
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What's happened to the German left?

For a fourth successive election, the left seems to be failing to challenge the status quo.

When Germany goes to the polls this weekend, Angela Merkel is expected to win a fourth term in office. Merkel has maintained her commanding lead in the polls on 37 per cent, while her closest competitor, the Social Democratic Party (SPD) has been relegated to, at best, a possible coalition partner. 

The expectation that the status quo will continue has left commentators and politicians of all stripes asking: what has happened to the German left?

Lagging behind in the polls, with just 20 per cent of the country's voting intention, Martin Schulz’s SPD has slumped to its lowest level this year only days before the vote, according to the latest poll by Infratest dimap for ARD television.  

Even the prospect of a left-wing alternative to a Merkel-led coalition appears to have become unpalatable to the electorate. An alliance between the SPD, die Grünen (the Greens) and the socialist party die Linke (the Left) would not reach the threshold needed to form a government.

One explanation for the German left's lack of impact is the success Merkel has had in stifling her opposition by moving closer to the centre ground. Over the last four years, she has ruled a grand coalition known as GroKo (Große Koalition) with the centre-left SPD, leaving many of its voters believing their party was no longer any different to the chancellor's conservative Christian Democratic Union (CDU).

Rolf Henning, 34, has been a member of the SPD since 2004. Campaigning in Pankow, a diverse area of eastern Berlin which has traditionally voted on the left, he told the New Statesman that although the coalition had enabled the SPD to push its social agenda, the party did not receive any credit for it.  

“It is now hard to motivate people to vote for the SPD because people think it will not make any difference. If we were to enter a coalition again with Merkel and the CDU then our support base will drain even further,” he said.  

Another grand coalition between the CDU and the SPD is very much on the cards, as Merkel is unlikely to win an outright majority. But while the arrangement has seemingly worked out well for the chancellor, its benefits for the SPD seem rather less certain.

“The political strength of the left is an illusion," says Gero Neugebauer, a political analyst and a former senior researcher at the Freie Universität Berlin, "The SPD did a good job in the coalition to push issues of social policy and family policies, but Ms Merkel took the credit for a lot of it. People saw the car and the chauffer rather than paying attention to the engine."

In 2015, under pressure from the SPD, the Merkel administration introduced a minimum wage in Germany, a benchmark for many in the party which yet did little to gloss over the SPD’s image. On the contrary, Merkel’s election campaign sought to win over disillusioned SPD voters.

According to Neugebauer, the left-wing parties have failed to work together to form a real alternative coalition to the Merkel administration. He warns that Germany’s left-wing camp has become “an illusion” with “virtual power”.

For a short-lived moment the election of Martin Schulz, the former president of the EU Parliament, to head the SPD, brought hope to the idea of a left-wing coalition. 

Stefan Liebich, a member of parliament for die Linke representing the Pankow district, says the SPD initially rose in the polls because people thought there could be an alternative coalition to Merkel. "But then the SPD made a lot of mistakes and they were wrongly told they would lose support if they worked with us," he adds.

"Now nobody believes a left-wing coalition could ever happen because the SPD is so low in the polls.” 

Before Schulz took over the SPD, few believed that after four years in the coalition government the party had a good chance in the upcoming election. “But Schulz arrived and said ‘I will be chancellor’ and it was like a phoenix rising from the ashes,” says Neugebauer.

Schulz revived the social-democratic tradition and spoke about social justice, but the delay of his election programme left many wondering whether he would be able to walk the walk – and his popularity started to fall.

“Compared to Merkel, he became less credible and less trustworthy,” says Neugebauer.  

The SPD are, of course, not the only left-wing party running. Back in Pankow, Caroline, a lawyer and a long-time SPD voter said she was considering voting for the more left-wing die Linke because she did not want to give her ballot to Schulz.

“There is something about him, he is not straightforward and he is too much like the CDU," she continues. "As the head of the EU Parliament, Schulz was good but I don’t think he has what it takes to tackle issues in Germany."

For Ulrike Queissner, also a Pankow resident, the SPD’s lurch to the centre convinced her to vote for die Linke: “The SPD has become mainstream and part of the establishment. It has become too close to the CDU and has no strong position anymore.”

Stable at about 8 per cent in the polls, die Linke is still trailing the extreme-right Alternative fur Deutschland (AfD), which is anticipated to win between 8 and 11 per cent of votes. This means it would enter the German parliament, the Bundestag, for the first time, becoming its third biggest party.

At the core of die Linke’s manifesto is the redistribution of wealth, a peaceful foreign policy and measures to stamp out the remaining social rift between east and west Germany.  

The party strives to challenge Merkel’s feel-good slogans by putting the spotlight on the discrepancies between rich and poor, and east and west.

 “When we look around to Portugal, Spain, Italy, and maybe even to the UK, we seem happy," says Liebich. "We don’t have an exit [from the EU] debate or a high unemployment rate. And yet, there is a part of Germany that sees that things are not going so well."

And for some of die Linke’s eastern electorate, immigration is at the top of the list of grievances, putting pressure on a party which has always defended an open door-policy – something Liebich acknowledges.

“In Berlin a majority of voters say they are open to people who need help, but in the eastern states, where we have a high unemployment rate and a lot of people who are not used to living with people of other cultures, there is a lot of anger."

That will add to concerns that large numbers of silent AfD supporters could create a surprise in the traditionally left-wing area of east Germany, where the far-right party is capitalising on the anti-immigration sentiment. The left seems to be squeezed between Merkel’s move to the centre ground and the AfD’s growing populist threat.

For Neugebauer the prospect of AfD members in parliament should force left-wing parties to sharpen their political lines, and form a consensus bloc against the rising extreme-right. The silver lining lies in the hope that all three left-wing parties – die Linke, die Grünen and die SPD – find themselves together in the opposition.

“Then, there would be an opportunity to start a conversation about what the parties have in common and start working together," he says. "It would be a chance for the German left to find itself again and create a vision for co-operation.” 

And yet, commentators still anticipate that at least some part of the left will end up working with Merkel, either through a grand coalition with the SPD or a three-way “Jamaica coalition”, with the pro-business FDP and the Greens. For the German left the time for cooperation, and a shot at taking charge of Germany's future, may still be some years away.