As Gang Murders Surge, South Africa Sends Army to Cape Town, and the City Cheers

As Gang Murders Surge, South Africa Sends Army to Cape Town, and the City Cheers

CAPE TOWN — It was like a scene from the apartheid days: a military unit with armored trucks and assault rifles patrolling the streets of a South African township.

But as soldiers arrived in Mitchells Plain, an impoverished suburb outside Cape Town, people did not hide inside or erupt in protest, as many would have decades ago when the army was a symbol of white minority rule.

Instead, residents rushed from their homes to welcome the troops, who were sent in last month to quell an extraordinarily bloody spate of gang violence and have remained in the area ever since.

“This is what we need,” said Nasser Myburgh, a radio technician, watching soldiers and the police search a house on his street for drugs. “The people are shooting here every night.”

Cape Town, widely known as a tourist destination for its historical sites and natural beauty, has become one of the world’s most dangerous cities. The police recorded more than 2,800 murders in 2018, and its homicide rate — about 66 killings per 100,000 people — is surpassed by only the most violent cities in Latin America, according to the Citizens’ Council for Public Safety and Criminal Justice, a nongovernmental group in Mexico.

The violence largely stems from escalating turf battles between gangs that traffic in drugs, weapons and illicit goods like abalone, a shellfish prized by poachers.

Trying to stanch the bloodshed, President Cyril Ramaphosa ordered the military intervention on July 12, despite experts’ warnings that soldiers can do little about the underlying issues, like worsening corruption and rising unemployment, that have allowed gangs to reign over the townships for decades.

The area of Mitchells Plain where Mr. Myburgh lives is on the Cape Flats, an expanse fringing the city where black and mixed-race people were forcibly moved from central parts of the city during apartheid. His neighborhood has been divided by a warring array of gangs: the Hustlers, Rude Boys, Ghetto Kids, Spoilt Brats, Hard Livings and Americans, whose symbols include dollar signs and the United States flag. Gang graffiti marks the walls of the small, crowded houses, many with backyard shanties to compensate for a lack of housing.

The first weekend of military patrols saw murders drop on the Cape Flats, according to the provincial health authorities. Over the following weekend, 46 people were killed.

A few weeks into the deployment, the bloodshed had not paused in some places. In Mitchells Plain, less than 48 hours after a military patrol withdrew back to its base, a man named Ashley Cupido was killed.

“You hear gunshots and hope it’s not your child,” said his mother, Barbara Cupido, several days after the killing. Mr. Cupido’s body was still at the city mortuary, where the surge in violence has caused a backlog.

Mr. Cupido lived in an area controlled by the Hard Livings gang. His girlfriend and 5-year-old son lived on Americans’ turf. He was shot walking between the two homes, his mother said.

The police precinct with the highest number of killings in South Africa last year, Nyanga, also in the Cape Flats, had 308 murders — one fewer than Baltimore, a city with 10 times as many people. Mitchells Plain had 140 murders, while central Cape Town — home to upmarket restaurants, galleries and hotels — had just eight.

This year, intensifying gang rivalries have driven the violence to crisis levels. The murder rate was “about twice as bad as what we’ve seen before,” said Jean-Pierre Smith, the city’s mayoral committee member for safety and security.

Officials like Mr. Smith say that the military deployment, called Operation Prosper, will help stabilize Cape Town’s 10 most dangerous neighborhoods and allow important social programs to resume working — schools and ambulances, for example, cannot operate in many areas. But critics warn that bringing in the army may only dampen the violence.

“It’s like throwing a blanket over a giant dumpster fire, but all the things that caused the fire are still present,” said John Stupart, a military analyst and editor of the African Defence Review, a research organization.

“As soon as the army leaves, a lot of these gangs are going to uncover their weapons and drugs and go back to business as usual,” Mr. Stupart added.

Attempts in nations like Brazil and Mexico to subdue gang violence with military forces have had mixed results. In some cases, homicides have increased in the wake of intervention, even when other forms of crime have dropped.

Some of the strongest supporters of Operation Prosper, which is scheduled to end in September, are members of local community policing forums, who say that the government is finally taking their concerns seriously after years of neglect. In Cape Town, the military is under the police’s command and being deployed on targeted raids.

“If there’s even the perception of safety, maybe that’s better than nothing,” Mr. Stupart said. “But you should not have the kind of societal breakdown where people are cheering military deployments in their own neighborhoods.”

Every evening, Mr. Myburgh, the radio technician, locks his family indoors and switches on the television. “Walk outside,” he said, “you’re probably going to get shot.”

The night before the military arrived, just a few blocks from Mr. Myburgh’s home, a young man named David Hermanus was gunned down. In retaliation, gangsters sprayed a nearby house with bullets, injuring a man and his 18-year-old niece. Another man, Garth Adams, was killed the next afternoon, about an hour before the patrols began.

“This is how we’re living,” said Mr. Myburgh. “For us, this is normal.”

Gangsterism is less a syndrome of the Cape Flats than its dominant governing force. Early gangs took root amid the turmoil of forced removals from the 1960s, ’70s and ’80s, when tens of thousands of families were evicted from neighborhoods designated for whites. Unemployment has remained high in much of the area; in Mitchells Plain, less than 37 percent of the population has a job.

After apartheid, when South Africa’s international borders opened, many gangs morphed into powerful criminal enterprises, said Simone Haysom, a researcher at the Global Initiative Against Transnational Organized Crime.

“The gangs still feed on state neglect and social dysfunction,” said Ms. Haysom, the author of a book about violence in the Cape Flats. “But the territorial control, the profits and the violence are vastly greater than they have ever been before.”

Also driving the conflict is a ready supply of weapons, many obtained from corrupt officials: in 2016, for example, a veteran police officer in Pretoria was convicted of illegally selling around 2,000 firearms, most of which ended up in Cape Flats. A study in the South African Medical Journal found a “strong association” over that period between the availability of firearms and the murder rate.

“It’s the guns that changed everything,” Mr. Myburgh said.

Mr. Myburgh grew up in Hanover Park, another suburb now being targeted by the military, but moved away when the violence grew too severe. His younger brother stayed, becoming a member of the Americans gang.

One day last month, Mr. Myburgh’s brother peered through his front window as the military rolled into Hanover Park. Three days later, he claimed to be back in business again, distributing counterfeit bank notes and taking a group of armed teenagers to shut down a rival drug den.

“When the army leaves from this place, the shooting is carrying on,” he said, asking not to be named for fear of alerting the authorities. Too many gangs were making money off the drug trade, he explained. And there were far too many guns on the street.

On a recent Saturday, two funerals took place a few hundred meters apart in Mitchells Plain: for Mr. Hermanus, attended by members of the Americans, and for Mr. Adams, attended by the Hard Livings.

A thick, cold mist hung over the Cape Flats during the ceremonies. Gangsters and police officers were on guard at each funeral in case a shooting broke out.

Standing in front of his family home, which had three bullet holes through the front window, Ronald Hermanus, 28, denied that his brother had been a gangster. “But you know how it is,” he said. “You hurt me, I hurt you back.”

His family no longer felt safe and was planning to leave Mitchells Plain, where they had lived for decades, he added.

“That fire,” he said, “is going to come for revenge.”

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