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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No, Donald Trump isn't starting World War Three in North Korea

The US president is living up to his promise to be "unpredictable". But is he using war as a sales pitch? 

“I plan on not dying,” Ian McCulloch of Echo and the Bunnymen told Spin magazine in 2008. “But if I have to, I want to die in Liverpool.” And so it was that nine years later, when war in the Asia-Pacific region suddenly seemed plausible, perhaps even likely, the musician pulled out of a solo show in Tokyo that was scheduled for 14 April and, according to Japan Today, left the country without even informing the event’s organisers. “We apologise for this significant inconvenience,” they later tweeted to ticketholders, blaming “news of an armed conflict between the US and North Korea” for the abrupt cancellation.

McCulloch isn’t the only one spooked by the heightened tensions between the two countries. Japan, America’s most strategically valuable ally in east Asia, lies within striking distance of Pyongyang’s weapons – military hardware that North Korea’s deputy foreign minister, Han Song-Ryol, recently insisted would continue to be tested “on a weekly, monthly and yearly basis”. On 8 April, three days before the North’s Supreme People’s Assembly was scheduled to convene, the 333-metre-long US aircraft carrier Carl Vinson left its home port of San Diego, accompanied by missile destroyers and a cruiser. The American president declared that he was sending an “armada” to the troublesome peninsula. If this was intended as a deterrence, however, North Korea was not deterred, and it fired a test missile from an eastern port on 16 April. The experiment ended in failure: the weapon exploded almost immediately after launch. Yet the message was clear. Don’t mess.

So the Korean War, which began in June 1950 but was never formally concluded with a peace treaty, has seemingly reached a crisis of a magnitude not felt since the armistice of 1953. Kim In-ryong, North Korea’s deputy UN ambassador, has accused the US of creating “a dangerous situation in which a thermonuclear war may break out at any moment”. If that’s true, McCulloch did well to take the first plane out of the area.

Such an apocalyptic scenario, however, remains unlikely to play out. It would serve no one’s interests, least of all North Korea’s, since the country could be wiped out almost immediately. Donald Trump demonstrated as much when he deployed the “mother of all bombs” – the Moab, the largest conventional explosive that the US has ever used in combat – on Isis bunkers in Afghanistan on 13 April. Perhaps more concerning to other heads of state than the damage done by the weapon was the apparent irrationality of the strike: Isis’s presence in the country is limited in comparison to that of the Taliban, and such an attack was unlikely to lead to any long-term resolution of the various crises there.

The US president, in effect, was signalling that he could match foes such as Kim Jong-un in terms of unpredictability – something that he had already underscored on 6 April with his surprise strike on a Syrian government airbase. It was a showbiz gesture.

On the campaign trail in January last year, Trump was asked whether he would consider bombing Iran’s nuclear facilities. “I’m gonna do what’s right,” he said. “I want to be unpredictable.” Since his inauguration, he has stuck to the latter part of that plan, from his on-again-off-again flirtation with Putin to his recent reversal on Chinese currency manipulation. Trump, it seems, is a president who wants to keep both enemies and allies on their toes. It’s a deal-making mentality – the sensibility of a salesman, not of a statesman. And it’s a dangerous one when applied to the global stage, where trust between nations is essential for any meaningful diplomacy.

If Trump is applying his “art of the deal” to America’s recent international ventures, it’s worth asking what the deal – or deals – in question might be. North Korea has long been a proxy for other problems in east Asia. The winding down of its nuclear weapons programme for its own sake looks, to me, unlikely to be the president’s principal objective (the US had a chance to pursue this in 1994 when it signed the Agreed Framework with North Korea, but political enthusiasm for it cooled almost before the ink had dried). But for a Third World War, even a thermonuclear one, to be put on the table as a potential reality, surely the stakes must be high?

I have my doubts. Trump’s foreign policy seems nowhere near as coherent or developed as, say, that of Barack Obama (imperfect though his doctrine of “patience” turned out to be). America’s recent actions have seemed opportunistic, rather than strategic. Brinkmanship from either side won't achieve anything, as both are reluctant to make concessions. So what could the US be up to?

Maybe the supposedly impending nuclear apocalypse is, at least in part, a ruse to sell stuff. Among the policy areas closest to Trump’s heart during his presidential campaign was trade. Last month, Peter Navarro, the director of the White House’s national trade council, told the Wall Street Journal: “Any country we have a significant trade deficit with needs to work with us on a product-by-product and sector-by-sector level to reduce that deficit over a specified period of time… That can be achieved, if they buy more of our products than they now are buying from the rest of the world, whether it’s chemicals or corn or whether, from a national security perspective, it’s submarines or aircraft.”

The countries with the largest trade imbalances with the US are China, Japan and Germany. China denies that it is deliberately pursuing a surplus in its dealings with US (and, frankly, what could America do about it anyway?), while Germany’s trade relations are handled by the European Union and so are difficult for the US to reset on a nation-to-nation basis. But Japan – which the US vice-president, Mike Pence, visited on a trade tour this week – has a pliable leader in Prime Minister Shinzo Abe.

Abe, a nationalist by instinct who has long struggled to remilitarise Japan and has incrementally reinterpreted his country’s pacifist constitution to permit increased military engagement, signed a significant arms trade pact with the US last year. Resistance to his agenda has been vocal in Japan at every step. However, fears of a rising threat from North Korea would give him more wriggle room. A Japanese commission is considering the potential benefits of deploying the US Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) system on its territory. This system will soon be in use in South Korea – much to the annoyance of China, which suspects that it would be capable of tracking and countering its nuclear programme.

Trump’s insistence that trade imbalances be remedied is unrealistic in many sectors, not least in the auto sector, since Japan already allows US cars into its market tariff-free and they still don’t sell. Upping trade and collaboration in arms, however, would help Abe appease Trump while getting closer to fulfilling his own goal of a militarily robust Japan. The threat of war could also allow him to establish a more active role for the nation’s “self-defence forces”. The US president, meanwhile, would have succeeded in getting one of America’s supposed “free-rider” allies to contribute something closer to what he deems its fair share, while strengthening his hand against the real adversary: Beijing.

While US arms dealers are doubtless readying their wares for sale, war with North Korea will probably be averted by pressure from China, without whose oil, airports, trade and access to financial markets the rogue nation could not function. (Some 80 per cent of North Korean exports and imports are with China.) From this perspective, the recent tensions between the US and North Korea represent an admittedly melodramatic episode of the US “pivot” to the east, more than the beginning of the end of the world.

It’s an unstable stability, but stable enough to allow for shallow political game-playing – and I suspect Trump is gaming it (as the revelation that the Carl Vinson flotilla was 3,500 miles away from North Korea and heading the wrong way at the time of Trump’s “armada” threat suggests). So McCulloch needn’t have denied Japanese fans a rendition of “Killing Moon”. The bombs aren’t likely to fall yet.

Yo Zushi is a contributing writer for the New Statesman. His latest album, It Never Entered My Mind, is out now on Eidola Records and is on Spotify here.

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