Gang Violence in Manenberg: can it be stopped?

By Ian Hanson

Learners from Manenberg's Red River Primary

Girls from Manenberg’s Red River Primary pose on a bench they have designated as a ‘safe space’ in their school, and which they designed and decorated.

This year the Manenberg community in the Cape Flats was wracked by gang violence that escalated in May 2013 and has continued for at least three months. 27 people were killed and over 50 injured. Gang violence is severe and endemic in Manenberg. This latest outbreak was largely a battle between two rival gangs, the Americans and the Hard Livings, the most powerful in Manenberg; it brought the community to a virtual standstill, traumatizing people and forcing them to live in fear. Teachers at 14 schools in Manenberg banded together, declaring the situation too dangerous for students and teachers to come to school anymore, and demanded that the Department of Education take serious and meaningful action to ensure the safety of learners and educators. This group formed the Teachers Steering Committee and their refusal to teach forced the Department to close all 14 schools.

Metro Police have provided temporary security for every school, and have beefed up their presence in the community. This has contributed to decreasing the fighting around Manenberg, but did not actually stop the violence. Instead it simply pushed it into neighboring areas such as Mitchells Plain and Hanover Park. Violence died down in late August, when the Manenberg Church of Reconciliation helped facilitate a ceasefire and peace talks between the two gangs. The two gangs apologized, vowing to stop using violence to resolve conflict and to help bring peace and stability to the community.

Although the media has stopped covering the gang violence, fighting has not stopped. Valdi, from the Manenberg Trauma Centre, reported that a trauma worker was injured two weeks ago during a shooting incident at the Trauma Centre. She says that reports of domestic violence have increased over the past month, suggesting that violence is manifesting itself in different ways.

In early September, several weeks after the ceasefire, the Western Cape Religious Leaders Forum, Campaign for Safe Communities (CSC) and other supporting organisations organized a solidarity visit to Manenberg. The object of this visit was not to tell local organizations how to operate but to show support for the community, speak with community members and leaders, visit areas substantially impacted by the violence, and discuss ways this outside group could assist Manenberg-based organizations. Although many things came to light over the course of two visits on 10 and 19 September, several things of particular importance were highlighted: the vulnerability of youth to gangsterism, and the ineffectiveness of current policing and government practices for tackling gangs.

Youth are most susceptible and often most actively involved in crime in Manenberg. The government has failed the youth of South Africa: a lack of employment opportunities and underfunded educational institutions has contributed to higher gang membership. These youth have been let down by a system that views them not as victims of a fractured, unequal society, but as part of the problem. They are often presented with few alternatives to a life on the streets. Even those not directly involved have been severely impacted by it. In Manenberg, students and educators alike were highly traumatized by the fighting around them. Many pupils are forced to walk through the territory of multiple gangs on their way to school. Silver Stream High School is located on the road dividing the territory of the Hard Livings and the Americans; this is the same area where 14 of the 27 murders took place.

Without proper counseling, it is unreasonable to expect students to function at the level of those living in calmer areas, or for educators to teach at their highest ability. According to the Principal of Silver Stream, during times of intense violence school attendance can drop to as low as 10% and most students will find it difficult to focus for more than five minutes.

The effects of gangsterism on school and youth life are wide and varied. At Red River Primary School, the sports field once used for exercise has been cordoned off and has become a hotspot for gangs and drug dealers. The community as a whole lacks places to release energy. When members of the CSC and partner organizations spoke with students from Red River, it became clear how profoundly the community has been touched by gangsterism. Most pupils acknowledged that they knew someone in a gang and that they had already been exposed to drugs. Most shocking of all was how commonplace this has become to the people of Manenberg.

Hard policing is not an effective strategy to combat gangsterism. Violent and aggressive tactics do very little to curb the rising influence of gangs upon communities in the Cape Flats. This strategy overlooks the complex variables that play a role in the development of gangs; it alienates the community, gains support for gangs, and increases gang membership. By brutalizing innocent people along with gang members, the police lose the support of the community, who should be its most crucial partner in the fight against gangs. Premier Zille’s proposed response to this latest surge in gang violence (i.e. bring in the army) suggests a lack of understanding of the fight against gangs.

It is important to examine the diverse factors contributing to the development of gangs. Gangs thrive on desperation. Manenberg struggles with an unemployment rate hovering around 66%, endemic societal problems such as school dropout rates between 60-80%, overpopulation, drug abuse, and health issues. These issues must be addressed in order to move towards curbing the power of gangs. People who do not have the prospect of employment or economic opportunities often turn to the alternative economy of crime, with its own forms of societal power and camaraderie.

Community leaders have suggested alternative ways the government could make a positive impact. The government would better serve the community by investing in sustainable development plans, which are critical to solving longstanding crime problems. It should establish alternative routes for unemployed youth. Father Donovan from the Manenberg Church of Reconciliation suggested several ideas, including youth diversion programs for youth who are not enrolled in school and skills development centers for unemployed people.

It is imperative that the government shifts its focus away from the Cape Flats “war” mentality and attempts to create meaningful change within struggling communities. Civil society and community organizations, together with active members of the community, hope to effect a gradual policy change through sustained pressure and through cooperation with the state. Perhaps it is naive to believe this will happen, but it is better than accepting the status quo.

While these problems are acute in Manenberg, the scourge of gangsterism is a nationwide issue with far-reaching effects for people living in South Africa. Gangsterism cannot simply be cordoned off. It can’t be stopped through aggressive policing. Its causes are complex and multifaceted, and must be addressed through fundamental shifts in government and law-enforcement policy, properly funded and executed community development, and active citizen involvement.