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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Bernie Sanders is America’s most popular politician – and he’s coming after Donald Trump

Sanders, unlike Clinton, had a clear and coherent vision. As of now, he is the best hope the Democrats have of retaking the White House in 2020.

“I like Bernie Sanders,” my four-year-old niece in Texas said to me last month. “Why isn’t he president?” More than six months on from the defeat of Hillary Clinton, it’s a question that countless frustrated progressives across the United States continue to ask aloud.

Remember that the election of Donald Trump was not the only political earthquake to shake the US establishment last year. A 74-year-old, self-declared socialist and independent senator from the tiny state of Vermont, in a crumpled suit and with a shock of Einsteinian white hair, came close to vanquishing the Clinton machine and winning the Democratic presidential nomination. Sanders began the campaign as the rank outsider, mocked by the former Obama strategist David Axelrod as the candidate with whom Democratic voters might “flirt” and have a “fling” before settling down with Clinton. By the end of the campaign he had won 13 million votes and 23 states, and raised more than $200m.

In this dystopian age of Trump, it is remarkable that Sanders is now by far the most popular politician in the US – and this in a country where “socialist” has long been a dirty word. Increasing numbers of Americans seem nevertheless to “feel the Bern”. As such, Sanders supporters cannot help but ask the big counterfactual question of our time: would Trump be the president today if he had faced Bernie rather than Hillary in the election? Throughout the campaign, polls showed him crushing Trump in a head-to-head match-up. In a poll on the eve of the election, Sanders trumped Trump by 12 percentage points.

Democratic voters were told repeatedly that Clinton was more “electable” – but had they opted for Sanders as their candidate, there would have been none of the backlash over her emails, Benghazi, Bill, her Iraq War vote, or her Goldman Sachs speeches. So did the Democrats, in effect, gift the presidency to the Republican Party by picking the divisive and establishment-friendly Clinton over Sanders the economic populist?

I can’t prove it but I suspect that Sanders would have beaten Trump – although, to be fair to the much-maligned Clinton, she, too, beat Trump by nearly three million votes. Also, one-on-one polls showing Sanders ahead of Trump in a hypothetical match-up fail to tell us how the independent senator’s support would have held up against a barrage of vicious Republican attack ads during a general election campaign.

Then there is the matter of race. Clinton, despite deep support in African-American and Latino communities, was unable to mobilise Barack Obama’s multiracial coalition. Sanders would have done even worse than she did among minority voters. Trump voters, meanwhile, were motivated less by economic anxiety (as plenty on the left, including Sanders, wrongly claim) than – according to most academic studies, opinion polls and the latest data from the American National Election Studies – by racial resentment and an anti-immigrant, anti-Muslim animus. Sanders, who at a recent rally in Boston defended Trump voters from accusations of bigotry and racism, would probably have struggled as much as Clinton did to respond to this “whitelash”.

Nevertheless, Sanders, unlike Clinton, had a clear and coherent vision and I would argue that, as of now, he is the best hope the Democrats have of retaking the White House in 2020. His support for greater Wall Street regulation, debt-free college tuition, universal health care and a higher minimum wage is not only morally correct and economically sound but also hugely popular with voters across the political spectrum.

The Democrats have a mountain to climb. They have to find a way to enthuse their diverse, demoralised base while winning back white voters who are concerned much more by issues of race and identity than by jobs or wages. A recent poll found that the party had lower approval ratings than both Trump and the Republicans as a whole.

Yet press reports suggest that at least 22 Democrats are thinking about running for president in 2020. This is madness. Few are serious contenders – thanks to the dominance of the Clinton machine in recent years, the party doesn’t have a deep bench. There is no new generation of rising stars.

The only two people who could plausibly prevent Sanders from winning the nomination next time round are the former vice-president Joe Biden and the Massachusetts senator Elizabeth Warren. The good news is that all three of these Democratic contenders are, to varying degrees, economic populists, willing to stand up passionately for “the little guy”. The bad news is that the Democratic base may fantasise about a young, dynamic Justin Trudeau or Emman­uel Macron of their own but, come the 2020 election, Sanders will be 79, Biden 77 and Warren 71. (Then again, they’ll be up against a sitting Republican president who will be 74, behaves as if he has dementia and refuses to release his medical records.)

Bizarrely, that election campaign has already begun. On 1 May, Trump released his first official campaign ad for re-election, 1,282 days before the next presidential vote. Biden visited New Hampshire last month to give a speech, while Warren is on a national tour to promote her new bestselling book, This Fight Is Our Fight.

Sanders, however – riding high in the polls, and with his vast database of contacts from the 2016 race as well as a clear, popular and long-standing critique of a US political and economic system “rigged” in favour of “the billionaire class” – is the man to beat. And rightly so. Sanders understands that the Democrats have to change, and change fast. “There are some people in the Democratic Party who want to maintain the status quo,” he said in March. “They would rather go down with the Titanic so long as they have first-class seats.”

Mehdi Hasan is a contributing writer for the New Statesman and the co-author of Ed: The Milibands and the Making of a Labour Leader. He was the New Statesman's senior editor (politics) from 2009-12.

This article first appeared in the 18 May 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Age of Lies

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