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. With Paul Holden, he is the author of Who Rules South Africa?

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Why Podemos will defeat the Spanish Socialists

A new alliance on the Spanish Left will be stronger than the sum of its parts.

On Saturday morning, on a palm-tree lined promenade in the small city of Badalona in eastern Catalonia, a 38-year-old woman named Mar García Puig fanned herself with her speaking notes after taking her turn on the stage.

Until six months ago, Puig was a literary editor with no professional experience in politics apart from attending demonstrations and rallies. Then, in December, her life was transformed twice over. In the national election, she won a parliamentary seat for En Comú Podem, the Catalan regional ally of the anti-austerity party Podemos. Four hours after she learned of her victory, Puig gave birth to twins.

Fortunately Puig’s husband, who is a teacher, was able to take paternity leave so that she could take up her seat. In parliament, Puig “felt like an alien”, she told me over coffee. As it turned out, she had to give up her seat prematurely anyway – along with all the other Spanish MPs – when repeated attempts to form a government failed. So now, in the lead-up to Spain’s first repeat election of the modern era, to be held on 26 June, Puig was on the campaign trail once more in a drive to win a parliamentary seat.

The December general election was as historic as it was inconclusive, ushering in a novel political era in Spain and leaving the country with the most fragmented parliament in its history. Fed up with corruption, austerity and a weak recovery from the global financial crisis, voters punished the mainstream parties, ending the 40-year dominance of the conservative Partido Popular (People’s Party) and the centre-left PSOE (Spanish Socialist Workers’ Party), which have held power since the death of General Franco. Neither group was able to win an absolute majority as new parties from both ends of the political spectrum garnered support from disenchanted voters.

On the left, Podemos, which was only founded in March 2014 by the ponytailed political scientist Pablo Iglesias, won 20 per cent of the vote. Ciudadanos (Citizens), formed in Catalonia a decade ago and occupying the centre left or centre right, depending on which analyst you talk to, secured a 14 per cent share.

Despite having four months to form a coalition government, the two biggest political parties could not reach a deal. The People’s Party, which had implemented a harsh austerity package over the past five years, recorded its worst electoral performance since 1989, losing 16 percentage points. It still won the most votes, however, and Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy was the first leader to be asked by King Felipe VI to form a government.

By the end of January, Rajoy conceded defeat after the PSOE refused to join his “grand coalition”. The Socialists then failed in their own attempt to form a government, leading the king to dissolve parliament and call a fresh election.

Despite the inconvenience of having to campaign nationwide once again – and being away from her twins – Mar García Puig’s enthusiasm for her new career is undiminished. “In Spain there is a window of opportunity,” she said. “There is a receptiveness to politics that there wasn’t before.”

When the repeat elections were called, some questioned whether Podemos and its regional allies could mobilise its supporters to the same extent as in December. Yet Puig believes that the party’s appeal has grown further in the six months that the country has been without a government. “We are still new and Podemos has this freshness – it can still make people join,” she told me.

The following day, as the church bells rang at noon in the Basque city of Bilbao, crowds gathered for another rally. For protection against the sun, Podemos supporters had covered their heads with purple triangular paper hats displaying the party name as it will appear on the ballot paper: Unidos Podemos, or “United We Can”.

In May, Podemos entered into an alliance with Izquierda Unida (United Left), the radical left-wing party that includes the Communist Party of Spain, and which won 3 per cent of the vote in December. Izquierda Unida is headed by Alberto Garzón, a 30-year-old Marxist economist who, according to a poll by the state-run CIS research institute, is the most highly rated party leader in Spain. Unlike Podemos’s Iglesias, who can fire up a crowd and is seen by some as divisive, Garzón is a calm and articulate politician who appeals to disaffected voters.

Nagua Alba, who at 26 is Podemos’s youngest MP, said the new alliance would be stronger than the sum of its parts, because Spain’s voting system punishes smaller parties when it comes to allocating seats in parliament. “It [the alliance] will attract all those people that aren’t convinced yet. It shows we can all work together,” Alba said.

As part of the agreement with Podemos, Izquierda Unida has agreed to drop its demands for a programme of renationalisation and withdrawing Spain from Nato. The alliance is campaigning on a platform of reversing Rajoy’s labour reforms, removing the national debt ceiling, opposing the TTIP trade deal, and increasing the minimum wage to €900 a month. A Unidos Podemos government would attempt to move the EU’s economic policy away from austerity and towards a more expansionist stance, joining a broader effort that involves Greece, Italy and Portugal. It is also committed to offering the Catalans a referendum on independence, a move that the mainstream parties strongly oppose.

The latest polls suggest that Unidos Podemos will become Spain’s second-biggest party, with 26 per cent of the vote, behind Rajoy’s Popular Party. The Socialist Party looks poised to fall into third place, with 21 per cent, and Ciudadanos is expected to hold its 14 per cent share. If the polls are accurate, the PSOE will face a difficult choice that highlights how far its stock has fallen. It can choose to enter as a junior partner into a coalition with the insurgent left, which has politically outmanoeuvred it. Or it could decide to prop up a Partido Popular-led right-wing coalition, serving as a constraint on power. 

This article first appeared in the 23 June 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Divided Britain