Increased gang violence in Cape Town leads to military deployment

Share on facebook
Share on twitter
Share on linkedin
Cape Town at night, where gang violence has increased recently


  • South African National Defence Force personnel have deployed to the Cape Town suburbs over the last week amid a crackdown on violent crime in the area.
  • The deployment follows months of pressure from local authorities and residents for the military to help restore order in the impoverished Cape Flats area where hundreds have been killed in gang-related violence since the beginning of the year.
  • The military deployment, currently authorised in ten high-crime districts, is scheduled to last until October but questions remain over the government’s long-term crime reduction strategy.

Military deployed to help police with gang violence

During a budget speech in parliament on 11 July, police minister Bheki Cele announced that President Cyril Ramaphosa had authorised the deployment of South African National Defence Force (SANDF) units to Cape Town. The following day, several hundred soldiers began to arrive at military bases and police stations in the city’s notoriously crime-ridden Cape Flats suburbs in order to support police in a major crackdown on gang activity and violence in the area. However, it would be another week before the SANDF were to first take to the streets, supporting a brief series of police anti-gang raids in the Manenberg township. 

The three-month SANDF deployment, termed Operation Prosper, is reported to include around 1,300 personnel and will focus on supporting police in ten of the most high-crime areas in the Western Cape; Bishop Lavis, Mitchells Plain, Delft, Elsies River, Nyanga, Khayelitsha, Mfuleni, Philippi, Kraaifontein, and Manenberg. Although soldiers are receiving specific pre-deployment and recurrent on-task training relevant to the operation, the SANDF is not expected to take on a full law enforcement role during the deployment.

The focus will instead be on supporting existing police operations such as providing security for cordon and search operations, manning observation posts in flashpoint areas, and conducting foot and vehicle patrols. The military has also been given the authorisation to provide aerial surveillance and search support to police anti-drug operations.

Soaring violence led to public demands for governmental intervention

Although the timing of Cele’s announcement was unexpected, there was little surprise at the government’s decision to send the military into the Cape Flats. Despite its reputation for being a safer destination than other cities in South Africa, particularly Johannesburg, Cape Town’s murder rate has been increasing rapidly over the last decade, from 43 per 100,000 in 2009/10 to around 69 per 100,000 in 2017/18, overtaking Durban, Johannesburg and the national average, and has continued to grow faster than any other area.

More than 2,000 people are believed to have been killed in the Western Cape since the beginning of 2019, with almost half of these deaths being directly related to gang activity in the Cape Flats. The sprawling apartheid-era townships have long had a reputation for drug abuse, criminal activity and violence, but a failure to tackle widespread poverty, unemployment and poor education in the Flats over the past two decades has left the area in the grip of street gangs.

Dozens of rival gangs control various areas of the Cape Flats, leading to long-running conflicts over territory and the area’s narcotics supply networks. Gang-related murders have become a daily occurrence, with killings often being included as a gang initiation rite and dozens of bystanders being caught in the cross-fire between criminals.

Amid the escalating violence, there have been repeated calls in recent years for the government to authorise the deployment of the SANDF to the Cape Flats from both residents of the area and the opposition-led Cape Town municipal administration. Such military deployments in support of police are not unprecedented in South Africa, with the SANDF regularly assisting with security during periods of increased criminal activity around the Christmas and New Year holidays.

Operations have also been launched on several occasions in response to specific criminal threats and periods of unrest, such as the anti-gang operations in Gauteng in 2006 and the outbreak of xenophobic violence in Kwazulu-Natal in 2015. However, Ramaphosa has been wary of appearing to accept arguments from the opposition Democratic Alliance (DA) that the African National Congress (ANC) has failed to address the deep-seated issues of inequality and unemployment in South Africa’s poorest communities over the last 25 years. The President has also sought to avoid personal criticism of his special anti-gang police unit in Cape Town, launched to much fanfare in November but which has received little funding and failed to make a significant impact in the city.

The government’s eventual decision to authorise the SANDF deployment has been broadly welcomed by the DA-led administration in Cape Town and communities in the Cape Flats. However, the move met with criticism from a number of police and military leaders, who questioned whether the soldiers deployed have been adequately trained to take on the roles assigned to them. The main concerns have revolved around appropriate use of force and the differences between military rules of engagement and police de-escalation tactics.

Although military personnel have been assigned a minimal law-enforcement role during Operation Prosper and are expected to act primarily as a deterrent force, there remains a risk of armed confrontations with gang members during patrols with the potential to spark wider-scale violence. With memories of bloody apartheid-era military crackdowns remaining strong in the townships, any violence involving the SANDF in the Cape Flats also carries a significant risk of unrest which may rapidly overwhelm security forces in an area where their influence and operational capabilities remain limited.

Long-term plan to reduce gang violence remains unclear

With gang violence so deeply engrained in Cape Flats communities, most questions over the SANDF deployment have focused on what happens once the soldiers leave in October. The crackdown on gang activity enabled by the military deployment is likely to have an immediate effect on the number of murders in the areas targeted, but the longer term impact of the operation is less clear.

With drivers of crime such as poverty, unemployment and drug abuse being enduring problems across the deprived suburbs, gang activity is a long-term inter-generational problem and any strategy to tackle it will require input from multiple government agencies and civil society organisations. However, the government has so far struggled to develop a multi-agency response to the problem, particularly given a perennial lack of funding and the limited influence of local authorities in the communities. 

There is evidence that around half of previous security force crackdowns and short-term military deployments in support of police in South Africa have had a positive impact in reducing violent crime, particularly when operations focus on removing illegal firearms from the streets. However, SANDF operations in the Cape Flats over the last week have been limited in scale, being focused in Manenberg and Kraaifontein, and revolved around police operations targeting high-profile gang leaders, a strategy that risks creating new violence amid a power vacuum and increasing competition in other districts. Although the number of murders in the city between Friday, 19 July, and Monday, 22 July, fell to 25 from 43 the previous weekend, it remains to be seen whether this reduction is linked to police operations and can be sustained throughout the military deployment and beyond. 

As with many public services in South Africa, the country’s police service (SAPS) has suffered from chronic underfunding in recent years, which has had a severe detrimental impact on their ability to tackle crime in impoverished areas. The situation in the Western Cape is believed to be even worse than elsewhere in the country, with police numbers in the province falling well below the national average. Local officials report that there is still a major shortage of police detectives in Cape Town, and a large proportion of those in place have not had sufficient training, leading to an insurmountable backlog of open cases. Equipment shortages and widespread corruption have further undermined public confidence in SAPS in Cape Town and their operational capabilities. 

Several specialist task forces and police units have been established to deal with criminal activity in Cape Town and the Flats in particular, including Ramaphosa’s own Anti-Gang Unit initiative in November. However, there has been little funding for such solutions which have typically proved superficial and had minimal impact on crime rates. Local authorities have announced a series of long-term measures to help tackle crime in Cape Town after the withdrawal of the SANDF, including the recruitment of additional police officers and a reserve force, reform of some police units such as the traffic police, and social and youth programmes in the Flats, but it remains unclear how these are to be funded.

Outlook following the surge in violence

Although the deployment of the SANDF is likely to see a temporary reduction in violent crime in districts of the Cape Flats where security operations are focused over the next three months, the prospect for a long-term improvement in the local security environment is significantly less certain. Plans for additional police resources in the Western Cape are unlikely to be ambitious enough to have a significant impact on violence in Cape Town’s suburbs and are yet to be properly funded, a problem which will only be exacerbated as South Africa’s national finances come under increasing strain.

Divisions between the national government and the opposition-led municipal administration are likely to present challenges to police funding and initiatives as both present competing crime reduction strategies in the area. Even if the police and military succeed in tackling street-level gang activity in Cape Town, criminal groups are likely to remain deeply embedded in Cape Flats communities, with ties to wider criminal organisations which police appear unwilling or unable to tackle. Improved police resources and pay have the potential to facilitate more effective law enforcement in high-crime areas in the medium term, but corruption remains a serious issue throughout SAPS which threatens to undermine progress in tackling organised crime.

With this being said, it should be noted that the vast majority of violent crime in Cape Town remains focused in the Cape Flats and poses a limited risk to business travellers. Whilst there is a significant risk from pickpocketing, mugging, bag-snatching and other street crime in the city centre and criminals may resort to violence if resisted, attacks on foreign nationals remain uncommon.