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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.

Flats and shacks on the outskirts of Cape Town. Photo: Getty
Flats and shacks on the outskirts of Cape Town. Photo: Getty

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.  

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